As more information begins to emerge about e-cigarettes, they are looking less and less like benign alternatives to traditional smoking. Teenagers are apparently taking up the so-called vaping habit in droves, and now we're also learning that the exhaled vapor contains multiple harmful chemicals.
That is reason enough for California to follow the lead of many municipalities by prohibiting vaping in workplaces, restaurants and other indoor gathering places, and to take stronger steps to prevent teens from buying e-cigarettes.
As most people know by now, e-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat nicotine — along with other chemicals — into a vapor that is inhaled. They do not produce smelly smoke or the dangerous tar that causes lung cancer. Nicotine, though, carries its own health risks and is a highly addictive substance, so it has been disconcerting to see the rapid rate at which teenagers who have no previous history of smoking have embraced the devices. Cigarette smoking has fallen among teens, but the drop has been eclipsed by the rise in vaping.
Now a new report by the California Department of Public Health casts doubt on one of the informal claims about e-cigarettes: that they help smokers quit the habit. In one study the report cites, callers to a quit-smoking help line were less likely to have stopped smoking cigarettes if they tried vaping as a smoking-cessation aid. The report also notes the presence of toxic ingredients in e-cigarettes. Perhaps most disturbingly, it points to analyses by the National Youth Tobacco Survey that found teenagers who vaped were nearly twice as likely to try regular cigarettes — and more likely to become habitual smokers.
The state report is not, however, an objective assessment. It obviously includes only the most damaging information about e-cigarettes. For example, some other studies have found potentially encouraging signs that vaping might help some smokers quit. In other words, we should not allow our concerns about the very real horrors of smoking to fill us with possibly unwarranted terror of e-cigarettes. In open-air settings, the vapor dissipates very quickly; proposals to ban vaping at the beach or outdoor-restaurant settings reflect a silly hysteria.
Sensible public policy calls for two things: protections for minors and caution about allowing vaping in indoor settings, considering that the health effects of second-hand vapor are not known.
A bill introduced this week by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would do both. SB 140 would raise the sale of e-cigarettes to minors from an infraction to a misdemeanor, and would prohibit vaping in schools, workplaces and restaurants. A similar, previous bill was rejected; the Legislature shouldn't make that mistake again.
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