EDITORIAL: E-cigs should be banned in workplaces, including bars

Californians take for granted that bars, restaurants and other workplaces are smoke-free, thanks to legislation that took effect 20 years ago.

But in much of the state, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, it’s perfectly legal to suck on battery-operated cigarettes and exhale toxic vapors that can affect the health of co-workers and patrons.

Americans for Nonsmokers Rights reports that 61 California cities have ordinances restricting e-cigarettes. Among the cities that don’t: Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield, Modesto and Stockton. The Valley needs to wise up.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is carrying legislation to treat e-cigarettes the same as tobacco cigarettes by banning their use in workplaces, including bars. That’s no small task.

Major tobacco companies, which own e-cigarette brands, have imposed on malleable legislators to kill past attempts to regulate the electronic nicotine delivery devices. Knowing that money speaks to politicians, tobacco companies spent more than $3 million on California campaigns in 2013 and 2014.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has accepted $162,000 in tobacco money in recent campaigns, is a national voice on the environment. Surely his interest in clean air should extend to bars where working people increasingly have to decide between keeping their jobs and inhaling toxic vapor. He ought to take a stand in favor of Leno’s bill, SB 140.

Brown’s new state health officer, Dr. Karen Smith, makes clear that although e-cigarettes are not as well researched yet as tobacco cigarettes, secondhand vapor, like secondhand smoke, contains unacceptable levels of carcinogens. “We know it is bad. We know it contains toxic substances,” Smith said in an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member.

Leno has support for his bill from some influential groups including the California Medical Association and Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers.

But most groups that backed the 1994 ban are missing in action. The California Labor Federation, the California Hospital Association and the California Restaurant Association all took early and courageous stands in favor of the smoking ban 20-plus years ago.

E-cigarettes, which have been on the market for eight years, employ the slick marketing techniques that worked so well for tobacco cigarettes, especially among adolescents: free samples, sweet flavors, celebrity testimonials and product placement on shows watched by their coveted demographic, young people. Insipid ads for the leading nicotine inhaler company, blu eCig, are all over television aimed at young adults. The pitchman seems so sincere, so honest, so hip. It’s big business.

Lorillard, the nation’s third-largest cigarette company, bought blu for $135 million in 2012. Reynolds American, the nation’s second-largest cigarette company, is buying Lorillard for $27 billion, and is selling some brands, including blu, to a British tobacco company for $7 billion. In the last legislative session in Sacramento, blu paid $211,000 for lobbying.

To counter the impact, California is spending $7 million on a statewide ad campaign intended to show young people that tobacco companies are manipulating them by getting them to vape. The ads are powerful, if late.

This year, the California State Health Officer issued a report saying e-cigarettes “emit at least 10 chemicals that are … known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” The report said that in 2014, more teens used e-cigs than tobacco cigarettes. Consumption tripled among people 18 to 29.

Public health experts say young people who become hooked on nicotine delivered by battery-operated devices ultimately will turn to smoking. “Comprehensive steps taken now can prevent a new generation of young people from becoming addicted to nicotine, avoid future health disparities and avert an unraveling of California’s approximately $2 billion, 25-year investment in public health efforts to prevent and reduce tobacco use in California,” the report said.

This isn’t about vapers’ rights. Adults can do as they please. But as the saying goes, other people’s rights end at our noses. The rest of us should not be expected to breathe the fumes of other people’s addictive and toxic vice.