EDITORIAL: The tobacco threat returns

December 13, 2013 

There hasn't been enough research into the health consequences of smoking electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs.


f you thought that cigarettes were a thing of the past, you would be wrong.

They're back in the news on two fronts, both with California connections.

The first involves Assembly Member Richard Pan, a Sacramento physician who probably didn't think his legislation would threaten one of California's true public health success stories — a dramatic decline in smoking by state residents.

The second is electronic cigarettes. As described in a Nov. 26 story by Sarah Sexton, a Bee Washington Bureau reporter, e-cigs "look like traditional cigarettes but are battery-operated products that heat tobacco-derived nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor that the user inhales."

E-cigs will be banned on University of California campuses effective Jan. 1 and soon may be banned by the California State University system.

We are good with that because there hasn't been enough research into the health consequences of e-cigs. Until there is, it's best that their use be strongly discouraged — even though e-cig advocates claim that these products are safer than tobacco and even help some smokers quit.

According to Sexton's story, the White House is reviewing a proposal from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on how to regulate e-cigs. At a minimum, the FDA should prohibit sales to minors and ban advertising on television.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health has read the letter of Pan's law, Assembly Bill 906. Advocated by public employee unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Pan's bill seeks to force state departments to use state workers whenever possible.

Citing that measure, state health officers are contemplating ending contracts with nongovernmental organizations that have spent years fighting the tobacco industry, and have succeeded.

A board that oversees California's tobacco-control program was so alarmed by the department's review that it convened an emergency meeting last week.

Fewer than 13% of Californians smoke, a lower percentage than any state other than Utah. By the state's own estimate, the tobacco-control effort, adopted by a 1988 initiative that raised tobacco taxes by 25 cents per pack, has averted a million tobacco-related deaths, and saved the state $130 billion in health care costs.

Pan, a Democrat, no doubt was playing to his base — state workers — by carrying the legislation. His goal may be laudable. The state should use civil servants whenever possible.

But sometimes state civil servants do not have the expertise that private workers have. For example, when UCLA decided to go tobacco free, it called on one of the contractors to help make the campaign a success. Another contract being scrutinized now provides a clearinghouse for tobacco education information.

California's tobacco-control effort is working. The Department of Public Health should not try to fix what's not broken.


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