Another shot at e-cigarettes

The tobacco industry has so far blocked regulation of e-cigarettes like tobacco, but a proposed initiative would raise taxes both on them and conventional cigarettes.
The tobacco industry has so far blocked regulation of e-cigarettes like tobacco, but a proposed initiative would raise taxes both on them and conventional cigarettes. AP

There are pros and cons to the proposed initiative to raise the tax on sales of tobacco, but one of the better arguments for it is that it includes e-cigarettes.

Launched last week by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Sen. Richard Pan, the Sacramento Democrat and pediatrician who last year took on the vaccine resisters, the proposed levy is best known for its bid to add $2 per pack to the state’s cigarette tax.

But it also would take aim at the latest twist on a deadly old habit that increasingly is targeting adolescents. Given the decades it has taken to pull teenagers back from the tobacco industry’s clutches, there’s no earthly reason not to proceed with an excess of caution when it comes to electronic cigarettes.

So far, the e-cigarette industry, largely controlled now in the U.S. by tobacco companies, has ducked, dodged, sued and lobbied its way out of serious regulation. The federal Food and Drug Administration has been finalizing proposed rules for e-cigarettes at the national level for nearly two years.

Meanwhile in California, the slew of legislation beaten back by tobacco lobbyists last year included a bill that, usefully, would have let the state shortcut the FDA wait, treating e-cigarettes for legal purposes as a tobacco product. Health is California’s middle name, except when it is not.

Unfortunately the e-cig market has sizzled while lawmakers fiddle.

Use among high school and middle school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the same time period, spending on e-cigarette advertising across the top 10 brands rose 52 percent nationally, to $115.3 million in 2014, according to ad sales data analyses.

The National Youth Tobacco Survey of middle school and high school students found that in 2014, 68.9 percent had been exposed to e-cigarette ads.

Vaping industry groups contend the products are not only safe, but should be encouraged. They say e-cigs help wean smokers from the conventional cigarettes that indisputably cause cancer.

But researchers have linked e-cigarettes and vaping equipment with their own health risks. And a review and analysis of existing data published this month in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine by researchers from UC San Francisco found that adult smokers who used e-cigarettes were actually 28 percent less likely to give up regular cigarettes.

In fact, a paper published late last year by JAMA Pediatrics found that kids with no interest in regular smoking were more likely to take it up after trying e-cigarettes.

Addressing this problem via a ballot measure is an imperfect solution. Initiatives are too often the scattershot spawn of assorted special interests.

If this tobacco tax initiative gets the 585,407 signatures it needs to qualify for the ballot, and if it passes, the money raised will be earmarked for services for Medi-Cal patients, anti-smoking campaigns and medical research. Good causes, but only state lawmakers know whether a special tax hike for them makes sense in the big picture, and the California Medical Association, a big backer, is mainly out to fund a potential bump in Medi-Cal reimbursements for doctors.

Moreover, if this initiative makes it to the November ballot, it will sit side by side with another well-financed measure asking voters to legalize recreational marijuana. So thumbs down to tobacco and e-cigarette fumes, but thumbs up to a lung full of unfiltered weed smoke? That’s coherent – not.

The best course would be for lawmakers to grow a spine and make the hard calls here. Several of the proposals that stalled last session could still be resurrected and reconsidered. We obviously won’t hold our breath, and we won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to kids’ health. But sometime soon, before the petition deadline, the Legislature should give tobacco and e-cigarette regulation another shot.