Vaping puts public health gains at risk

Cory Parravano, left, manager of The Vapor Spot on J Street in midtown Sacramento talks to customers who smoke e-cigarettes.
Cory Parravano, left, manager of The Vapor Spot on J Street in midtown Sacramento talks to customers who smoke e-cigarettes.

Last week, the California Department of Public Health issued an advisory and report declaring e-cigarettes “a community health threat.”

The report cites new data on the public health risks presented by e-cigarettes (the vapor alone contains at least 10 toxic chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects); rising e-cigarette use among teenagers, which surpassed traditional cigarette use in 2014; and increasing numbers of calls to California poison control centers related to e-cigarettes. These concerning trends are emerging in tandem with widespread misinformation about the dangers of e-cigarettes and a 1,200 percent jump in e-cigarette advertising between 2011 and 2013.

We applaud the Department of Public Health for raising the alarm about e-cigarettes. This is a necessary first step, and a powerful call to action for advocates and regulators in California and across the country.

Until now, the threat e-cigarettes pose to the public’s health has not been taken seriously enough, with many regulators adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude or buying into manufacturers’ dubious claims that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes. We can’t afford this inaction any longer.

Currently, e-cigarettes slip through the cracks of many local smoke-free policies that have been protecting communities for decades – a policy gap that we need to close now. California has an opportunity to retake its position as a national leader on the issue of tobacco control.

In the early 1980s, I worked with a coalition of health advocates to pass the first multi-city smoke-free policies in the United States. When we started our efforts, many believed that unrestricted smoking was a norm too established to change, and that the tobacco industry was too big to fight.

Today, we know better. The cumulative success of hundreds of local smoke-free policies snowballed into a nationwide and international movement to protect nonsmokers from the deadly dangers of secondhand smoke.

In the process, norms have dramatically changed. As a result, smoking in public places is no longer socially acceptable and smoking rates have decreased significantly. In many places – though certainly not all – smoking has faded to the margins of public life. The public health gains have been enormous.

E-cigarettes threaten to undo these public health victories by reintroducing smoking into our workplaces, restaurants, bars and other public spaces where traditional cigarettes are banned. That’s why we need to act now to regulate e-cigarettes the way we do other tobacco products, which means cracking down on their production, marketing, sale and use.

Given the success of the control movement in regulating tobacco products and advancing proactive policies, the industry has been forced to seek out new markets, mostly overseas, and new products such as e-cigarettes. We should not underestimate the boundless creativity of a killer industry.

E-cigarettes remind us of the importance of remaining vigilant and prepared to address Big Tobacco tactics with the regulatory and advocacy strategies that have saved so many lives already. There may not be smoke this time, but there is certainly a fire. Let’s put it out before it grows.

Larry Cohen is founder and executive director of Prevention Institute, a nonprofit public health center based in Oakland.