Editorial: Finally, a chance for e-cigarette regulation

California Department of Public Health

As she prepares to pass her gavel to her successor, Speaker Toni Atkins has a chance to leave a legacy in the form of serious regulation of electronic cigarettes.

Atkins, D-San Diego, will step down on Monday, and Assemblyman Anthony Rendon will take over. But Atkins will preside Thursday, when the Assembly is expected to consider legislation by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to treat e-cigarettes as if they were tobacco products.

Vapers would face the same restrictions as smokers and could not use the devices in bars, restaurants and other workplaces. Vendors would risk their licenses if they sell their wares to minors.

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seemingly unable to impose meaningful regulations on the popular and almost assuredly addictive form of nicotine ingestion, California should fill the vacuum. It has done so before, notably when then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed a ban on smoking in workplaces in 1994.

Thursday’s vote would take place in a special session focused on health care. If the Legislature approves it, the measure would head to Gov. Jerry Brown; we hope he would sign it.

Some lawmakers have asked that Leno’s measure – and a similar bill by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove – be subjected to the normal legislative committee process. That generally is preferable.

However, Leno’s bill already has been scrutinized in committee hearings, only to stall in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, where the tobacco industry holds sway.

Lawmakers will consider other important tobacco-related bills, including ones to extend the workplace smoking ban to areas that now are exempted; prohibit tobacco and e-cigarette use on any public school grounds; and allow local government to impose tobacco taxes.

Another measure would raise the smoking age to 21, from 18. Studies have shown the older people are when they first partake, the less likely they are to become nicotine addicts. The measure makes sense, though if it were to become law, 18-year-olds could enlist in the military, but not buy cigarettes, an incongruity that could be remedied by amendment.

The most effective way to curb youth nicotine use would be to raise the price. Legislation to raise the tobacco taxes has stalled. This year, organized labor, doctors and health groups seek to qualify an initiative that would raise the tax, accomplishing what the Legislature has failed to do.

That’s where Atkins’ successor could come in. Perhaps Speaker-to-be Rendon can find a way to revive the tax legislation and avert an initiative war. That’d be the stuff of legacy.