California bills to regulate e-cigs, raise smoking age stall

In this file photo, a woman smokes an electronic cigarette at a store in Miami. Adult smoking rates are at an all-time low, but e-cigarettes are experiencing an explosion in popularity, particularly among young people. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Two California bills aimed at curbing youth smoking by regulating e-cigarettes and boosting the smoking age to 21 have stalled in committee, with one lawmaker even rejecting his own measure after it was revised.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, renounced his bill Wednesday when the Committee on Governmental Organization scrapped its key provision that would have regulated electronic cigarettes as tobacco products. Leno angrily told the committee the diluted version of SB140 will do nothing to protect the young people who are becoming hooked on e-cigarettes.

"I cannot support it any longer. I disassociate myself from it," said Leno, claiming the committee was fooling itself by claiming that devices which deliver doses of nicotine through a flavored vapor solution should not be defined as tobacco.

Adult smoking rates are at an all-time low, but e-cigarettes are experiencing an explosion in popularity, particularly among young people. For the first time in 2014, more teens reported using e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Scores of small business owners and e-cigarette users cheered the outcome, quickly pointing out that they were the ones who stood up and opposed the bill and not large tobacco companies.

"It's a victory for small businesses across this state that do not want to be associated with the tobacco industry," said Gregory Conley, who testified against the bill as president of the American Vaping Association.

But for many lawmakers, Big Tobacco was the elephant in the room. Though notably absent from the hearing, tobacco companies Altria and R.J. Reynolds have donated to over half of the members serving on the committee.

Altria spokesman David Sutton did not answer questions about company contributions to individual lawmakers on the committee.

Though currently considered behind the game, major tobacco companies are expected to overtake 75 percent of the e-cigarettemarket in the next 10 years.

Members of the committee who supported the bill as amended said the state should hold off as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers a national policy.

"I'm not sure I'm there yet on the definition," said Sen. Henry Perea, D-Fresno, who voted for the amendments after noting pending federal developments.

The FDA is currently weighing regulations that would subject e-cigarettes and related products to a mandatory federal review and require that packages carry health warnings.

Leno's original bill would have banned the use of e-cigarettes in California restaurants, hospitals and public transportation. Vendors would need to apply to the state for a license and would be subject to new state taxes.

The bill to increase the legal smoking age also stalled when the author yanked it from the agenda shortly before it was scheduled to go before the Committee on Governmental Organization. Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez of La Puente said he lacked the votes needed to move the bill forward.

"Big Tobacco is following their usual playbook and trying to kill this bill quietly in committee," he said in a statement. He vowed to continue working on the bill this year.

SB151 would make California just the second state after Hawaii to raise the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, signed legislation last month bumping his state's smoking age, joining New York City with the highest age restriction in the country.

A bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, stopped short of labeling e-cigarettes as tobacco products and still failed to pass the Senate last month. A 2013 bill that aimed to restrict their use in public places was watered down and eventually died.

California banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in 2010.