Bill by Merced lawmaker a good first step to deal with the epidemic of teen vaping

Experts call vaping a health epidemic among young people. A proposed California law would make it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21.
Experts call vaping a health epidemic among young people. A proposed California law would make it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21. File AP Photo

The use in recent years of electronic cigarettes by high school students jumped by 78 percent, reports the Food and Drug Administration in a study done in 2018.

That same study found that use by middle schoolers of those products climbed 48 percent.

It’s not surprising, given how e-cigarettes come in flavors with teen-appealing names, like Captain Crunch and cotton candy. The companies making such flavors package and market them in ways that appeal to young people as something fun to try.

Now comes a bill proposed in the state Legislature to cut off sales and marketing of e-cigarettes to young people. Assembly Bill 1639 is sponsored by Merced Democrat Adam Gray and co-sponsored by Republican Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo and Democrat Robert Rivas of Hollister.

While reaction in the health community has been mixed, the measure is a good first step toward dealing with what the FDA has called an epidemic among the nation’s youth.

AB 1639 would outlaw e-cigarette sales and marketing to minors in much the same way as alcohol is banned. No electronic cigarette products could be sold to anyone under the age of 21, and no one under that age would be allowed to enter a tobacco store.

The bill sets forth strict parameters for marketing, making it illegal for e-cigarette manufacturers to use images like cartoon characters or phrases that are popular among young people. No references to video games, movies or cartoons can be made. Flavors cannot be referred to as candy or be called by dessert names, like milkshake, cupcake or thin mint.

What Kids Vape
This file photo shows bottles of various flavors of vapor solution, known as “juice,” for use in e-cigarettes at a shop in Sacramento, Calif. Health officials warn that electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices are poisoning kids with nicotine. Rich Pedroncelli Associated Press File

Additionally, the manufacturers cannot advertise their products as having health benefits; promotions of e-cigarettes and associated products cannot be tied to activities popular with youth, like concerts and sports events; and testimonial ads about vaping would be disallowed.

Civil penalties for violators would be established, and young people would be used in sting operations to catch retailers selling to underage buyers. Offending businesses would have their operating licenses revoked for a set period.

An online retailer of e-cigarettes would have to use an age-verification system of its buyers to be allowed to sell to California consumers.

The bill was amended this week to address concerns of the California Medical Association over penalties that had been proposed for young offenders. The CMA asked that those provisions be removed, arguing that programs that educate, and don’t criminalize, are most effective. So those sections were taken out in the latest version of the bill.

However, the American Lung Association, American Heart Association and American Cancer Society continue to oppose AB 1639 because it allows mint, menthol and tobacco flavorings to remain on the market. Menthol, in particular, has been used by the tobacco industry to target young smokers as well as African Americans, the health groups say in explaining their opposition.

AK Health Care Access Summi (3)
Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, speaks with media before hosting a Health Care Access Summit on the University of California, Merced campus. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

The trade group that represents convenience stores is also not thrilled with the bill because it would restrict e-cigarette sales to 21-and-over shops. The California Fuels and Convenience Alliance officially takes a neutral stance, but told Gray in a letter that its members “have a well-documented and proven track record of success in keeping age-restricted products out of the hands of minors.”

Then there is the detail of Gray and Cunningham both receiving campaign donations from tobacco giant Philip Morris USA. Gray has taken $20,800 since 2012, while Cunningham received $13,000 since 2016.

The measure has a sunset clause of Jan. 1, 2022, which is when the FDA is supposed to issue a report on the health impacts of e-cigarettes, Gray said. He hopes the FDA’s findings can be adopted into a new measure.

Asked if the state should simply ban e-cigarettes outright, Gray said vaping, like smoking, is an activity that adults should have the right to choose to do or avoid.

AB 1639 cleared Gray’s Governmental Organization Committee this week, and now heads to the Health Committee and Appropriations before it goes to the fully Assembly and, presumably, onto the Senate.

The law takes important steps to limit young Californian’s access to electronic cigarettes and paraphernalia. For that reason, it deserves support in Sacramento.