The Director of Public Health for Los Angeles County, Jonathan Fielding, cut short his vacation to join officials from New York, Boston and Chicago in the nation's capitol Thursday to ask the federal government to regulate electronic cigarettes.
Cities have taken the lead in regulating the non-combustible tobacco. Last month, the City of Los Angeles updated the municipal code that prohibits e-cigarettes in all smoke-free areas — indoor workplaces, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, parks, beaches and farmers markets. Dr. Fielding noted that Long Beach, Beverly Hills and Glendale have also passed laws regulating e-cigarettes.
Fielding said a county-wide ban is unlikely since this kind of civic ordinance is usually taken up by individual cities. That means the one million people who live in unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County would be unprotected from city-issued bans on e-cigarettes.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule that would allow the agency to regulate e-cigarettes, cigars, nicotine gels and hookahs. But it will take a year before the rule is finalized, and even longer before regulations would go into effect.
Dr. Fielding asked why the FDA isn't treating e-cigarettes like a new drug, holding off approval until they are proved safe and effective, asking: "Is that the kind of public policy we want?"
The e-cigarette industry has been rapidly gaining customers, with the number of adult smokers in 2011 doubling to about 21 percent from the year before.
In fact, the industry could reach $1.5 billion in sales in the U.S. this year and overtake that of traditional tobacco products within 10 years.
Fielding said smoking rates in Los Angeles are dropping — just 13 percent of Angelenos smoke today, compared to 19 percent nationally. Fielding is concerned that e-cigarettes will create a new generation of smokers and he urged the FDA to not allow e-cigarette marketing to "undo decades of our efforts to deglamorize smoking and its acceptability to youth."
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California has proposed a bill that prohibits companies from advertising or marketing electronic cigarettes to children under the age of 18. And she's co-signed a letter to the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission, urging the agencies to take enforcement action against e-cigarette manufacturers who make unsubstantiated or false claims in their ads — including assertions that their products help smokers of conventional cigarettes quit.
Dr. Fielding had another suggestion: "How about a federal tax?" Regular cigarettes are currently taxed at more than a dollar a pack by the federal government; California tax is another 87 cents. He said e-cigarettes are cheaper and therefore, more attractive, particularly to younger smokers.
The one thing health advocates don't want Congress to do is pre-empt local communities from passing their own laws regulating e-cigarettes. Lobbyists for tobacco companies are already working the halls of Capitol Hill. In fact, one lawyer worked the room after the health directors finished their presentations, greeting reporters and adding details to indicate there is strong support for e-cigarettes.
Chicago's Commissioner of Public Health, Bechara Choucair, said big tobacco has been doing more than traditional lobbying. It's taken to social media to get its message heard through Twitter bombing. Choucair said his personal Twitter account, that of the health department, as well as those of city council members were flooded with messages designed to give the impression that there are large numbers of people who oppose regulation. Choucair said his colleagues in New York and Los Angeles have also had their accounts overwhelmed by pro-electronic cigarette Twitter bombs.