Editorials

E-cigarette regulation is the real issue, not raising smoking age to 21

Though a pending bill would raise California’s smoking age to 21, electronic cigarettes actually have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens.
Though a pending bill would raise California’s smoking age to 21, electronic cigarettes actually have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens. Associated Press file

There’s no pressing health reason not to raise the smoking age to 21 in California. Smoking kills, and nine out of 10 tobacco users say they picked up the habit as teens.

But the proposal, which passed the Senate early this month and has moved to the Assembly, is hardly where the action is when it comes to kids and tobacco. Just as Uber has displaced taxi cabs and AirBnB has stolen the thunder from hotels, so has smoking been disrupted.

E-cigarette use among adolescents tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to the most recent National Youth Tobacco Survey. Meanwhile, regular cigarette use among high school students has declined.

E-cigs and vaping – that’s the growth area now for Big Tobacco, which has moved into the sector in a big way, with the attendant lobbying firepower. So while West Covina Sen. Ed Hernandez’s Senate Bill 151 may sound like a big deal, it’s not likely to matter much in and of itself to teens who still turn to Camels as a mode of rebellion.

The real question is whether e-cigarettes should get their own legal classification, as the industry hopes, or be regulated as tobacco products, as they should.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and his SB 140 would do the latter. It’s headed for a vote in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee on July 8. Leno’s bill would make a difference to adolescent lungs by treating e-cigarettes the same as tobacco. Approval of Leno’s bill ought to mean that people won’t be able to vape in restaurants and bars, sparing workers and other patrons of having to inhale secondhand mist.

The jury is out on where e-cigarettes fall on the risk continuum for nicotine delivery systems. Though they don’t create smoke, they still involve the inhalation of a mist containing nicotine and numerous other chemicals and carcinogens.

The aerosol in e-cigarettes and vaping equipment has its own chemicals linked to their own health problems. Worse, the devices could re-normalize smoking by serving as a gateway to regular tobacco. And the candy-ish flavors are a red flag that, like analog cigarettes before them, the products are being marketed to kids.

We don’t know what we don’t know, and because kids’ health is at stake, we’re better safe than sorry. So, sure, let’s go ahead and make the smoking age in California match the drinking age.

But while we’re at it, let’s give ourselves time to make sure we’re not just paving the way for one unhealthy vice to replace another. Whether the cutoff for sale is 18 or 21 is less important than ensuring that we stay ahead of the curve and keep our kids healthy, here in the 21st century.

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