In its zeal to stand up to the tobacco industry, the California Legislature has gone too far with a new package of proposed laws that would trample on the rights of adults — yes, even smokers have rights! — and prematurely treat electronic cigarettes the same as their dangerous smoke-based brethren.
On Thursday, the Legislature gave final approval to six bills that clamp down on adult smoking by raising the legal age to 21, allow counties to tax tobacco products, hike fees on retailers and distributors and wipe out some of the workplace smoking exemptions in the current law. One of the bills applies all of the same restrictions on tobacco to the nascent but growing e-cigarette industry. That alone makes this legislative package unacceptable.
When it comes to cigarettes, the science is clear: It's deadly for both smokers and for people who passively inhale their smoke. That's why it was correct for California and other states to restrict smoking in public places — so that adults whose choose to endanger their own health don't inflict harm on others in the process. California was at the forefront of regulating tobacco, and its laws have not only helped bystanders, but smokers as well. Today the state has the second-lowest smoking rate in the nation at 12% — yay for us.
FOR THE RECORD
A previous version of this editorial said that a package of proposed anti-tobacco laws would do away with the existing exemptions in the state's workplace smoking ban. In fact, only some would be eliminated. Vaping rooms, hookah bars and cigar lounges, among others, could still operate.
It could be lower, though. It should be lower. And the good news is that smoking among teens has been declining for the past decade, which is significant because most smokers start before they are 18. It is true that teens are increasingly picking up electronic cigarettes. But vaping, as the cool kids call it, is not the same as smoking. Instead of burning tobacco and inhaling the carcinogenic tar and smoke to the lungs, e-cigarette users heat liquid nicotine into an aerosol mist inhaled through reusable device.
This doesn't make it harmless, as the e-cigarette industry might have you believe. For one thing, nicotine is an addictive drug linked to heart disease. Studies have also found other negative health effects from vaping, including increased rates of asthma due to exposure to harmful chemicals. And then there's the worrisome fact that e-cigarette devices have been known to blow up in the faces of users.
Vaping is a public health concern, but a distinct one requiring its own set of restrictions. There's no evidence, for example, that the emissions associated with second-hand vaping are even a fraction as dangerous as those of traditional cigarettes. Simply extending all the rules that California adopted to protect the public from the effects of second-hand smoke doesn't make sense before the facts are all in.
As for raising the legal age to buy cigarettes and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, the argument is that the brains of young people are still developing, and that studies have found changes in brain activity of teens who smoke. These changes have been linked to poor decision-making and impaired cognition, among other things. But while that may be true, 18-year-olds are adults in the eyes of society, like it or not. They are allowed to serve on juries, watch violent movies, vote in presidential elections, drive cars and go to war. Yes, the legal age to buy a drink or a gun may be 21, but that's not to protect the young buyers, but because of the damage wrought on society by drunk driving and gun violence.
The fact that the age hike includes an exemption for men and women serving in the armed services only spotlights its lack of integrity. What? The health of young Americans is a concern unless they are in the military service?
We're also concerned that this draconian package of bills could undermine an important initiative that has been proposed for the November ballot that would slap a $2-per-pack tax on tobacco and use the proceeds to pay for tobacco prevention and to do tobacco research. Tobacco levies have had big effects on lowering smoking rates.
Another bill in the package would delete some exemptions in the current law regarding smoking in the workplace. That, in combination with the vaping bill, would mean that smoking e-cigarettes in most public places would be outlawed. Is that necessary? Until the science is clear, we don't know.
The fate of the six tobacco bills are now in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown. California has long been a leader in smart tobacco regulation and the proof is in the low smoking rates. Emphasis on the word "smart." Let's not change that.