Anti-tobacco activists began the year confident that California would follow the lead of other states and tighten its laws on smoking and electronic cigarettes.
California had once been ahead of the pack in curbing tobacco use and had fallen woefully behind, they said.
But those hopes turned to ashes Wednesday.
A bill that would have restricted electronic cigarettes in the same way as combustible ones was gutted and then shelved. And a measure to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21 was sidelined because it lacked enough votes to pass a key committee.
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) dropped his bid to regulate electronic cigarettes after the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee changed it so that it no longer treated the vapor devices as tobacco products that would face the same restrictions.
A furious Leno told the panel he was walking away from the revised measure “on behalf of the next generation of Californians who will become addicted to nicotine as a result of your vote.”
Leno said his sponsors of the bill, including the American Lung Assn. and American Cancer Society, also were withdrawing support for the altered measure.
“I no longer believe in it. None of my sponsors believe in it,” Leno told the committee. “I disassociate myself from it. It's a very dangerous bill now.”
The proposal would have banned electronic cigarettes in workplaces, restaurants and other public places where smoking is prohibited. It would also have allowed sting operations against businesses that sell the vaping devices to minors.
Leno said removing the designation of e-cigarettes as tobacco products allows manufacturers of vaping devices to continue marketing their products to minors. The amendment had been sought by the electronic cigarette industry.
Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who supported the amendment, said that without it, the law would harm those who make and sell electronic cigarettes that use cartridges with products other than nicotine.
“We have a whole group of individuals who will get caught up in this political, bureaucratic thing when they don't have to be,” Perea said. “I don't want there to be collateral damage for some folks.”
Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), the committee chairman, insisted on the amendment, saying that the state should wait for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to decide how to classify vapor devices.
Erick Beall of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Assn. called vaping devices “a safer alternative” to cigarettes that are often used by smokers to quit their habit.
Leno wanted California to follow 11 other states, including Colorado, Minnesota, Utah and Wyoming, that regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products.
Many cities, including Los Angeles, have similar laws.
The same committee was scheduled Wednesday to take up the bill to raise the legal smoking age. But Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) pulled his measure from consideration for lack of votes.
“While 75% of Americans support raising the purchase age for tobacco products to 21, it became obvious today that less than 50% of the Assembly ... committee members agree,” Hernandez said in a statement.
The senator said he plans to “continue to move this policy forward this year” in hopes that California will follow Hawaii's lead in raising the smoking age. But it is doubtful the bill will be approved if significant opposition from other lawmakers continues.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network reported that the tobacco industry has flooded California legislators' campaign accounts, including $175,000 in the first quarter of 2015. Nine of the 21 committee members, including Gray, received the maximum $8,200 for their reelection campaigns last year from tobacco giant Philip Morris and associated firms.
“Unfortunately, Big Tobacco is following their usual playbook and trying to kill this bill quietly in a committee, where they only need a handful of legislators, representing less than 14% of all Californians, to stop it,” Hernandez said in his statement.