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California's War on Vape 

Wednesday, Mar 9 2016
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It is the age of the vape. On our streets and in (some) of our buildings, bros and girls of all ages are pulling on propylene-glycol-powered tubes, and in Washington, clouds of vapor are replacing the proverbial smoke-filled room. Last month, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego), a 39-year-old ex-military man, vaped on the floor of the House during a debate over banning e-cigarettes on planes.

He lost his rhetorical point, and e-cigs were added to the list of banned devices on flights. Shortly thereafter, the e-cig vote appeared: Signs boldly proclaiming "I Vape I Vote" appeared at Donald Trump rallies in Texas. A few weeks later, on Feb. 24, Hunter became the first House member to endorse Trump.

Clouds of soon-to-be illicit vapor could very well fill any venue Trump visits in California between now and the June primary. Following the lead of lawmakers in San Francisco — which classified e-cigarettes as tobacco products in 2014, effectively banning them in many public places — state legislators approved a ban of nicotine vaporizers at work, school, and public places (all places where, under the state Smoke Free Act, tobacco is already verboten).

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the new restrictions, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) into law. When he does, the only way to legally access e-cigarettes before the age of 21 will be to join the military (there's an exemption for active duty armed forces personnel).

For most of us, tobacco has rightly been seen as a menace to public health all our lives. (Or, at least, cigarettes have been. Most commercial cigarettes don't contain tobacco leaf, but rather shredded paper sprayed with tobacco oil and hundreds of chemicals — a product called "reconstituted tobacco," according to reporting from PBS.) But is vaporized nicotine really as bad?

Federal public health watchdogs at the Food and Drug Administration still aren't sure, noting that e-cigarettes have yet to be fully studied. (The FDA may soon regulate all e-cigarettes, but for now it deals only with e-cigarettes that deliver a therapeutic benefit, according to the agency.) Still, lawmakers are pushing forward, touting recent findings by the California Department of Health that e-cigarette vapor contains 10 known toxins as well as the fact that vapor flavors like bubblegum appeal to youth.

This could also have an impact on California marijuana users. Leno's bill includes a clause that reads, "This act does not affect any laws or regulations regarding medical cannabis." In the past, Leno's staffers have told SF Weekly this is proof-positive the e-cig bills won't touch cannabis. However, as Dale Gieringer, the executive director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws points out, there are no laws or regulations regarding the vaping of medical cannabis, save for a few local ordinances. (And at least under San Francisco city law, smoking anything —including marijuana — is officially banned in public parks.)

"It's really hard to distinguish cannabis and nicotine e-cigs, so I expect that both will now be equally ostracized in politically correct, eco-sensitive localities in California," Gieringer says.

He also points out another motivation behind the rush to define e-cigarettes as tobacco: money. Tobacco taxes once generated as much as $650 million in annual state tax revenue. Now, the tax generates less than $350 million a year, a victim of anti-smoking laws' success. Classifying e-cigarettes as tobacco products means they will be taxed like tobacco products, keeping this fund — which goes to preschool programs as well as health initiatives — alive.

This is, on its face, irrational. An e-cigarette is not tobacco oil mixed with chemicals sprayed onto paper, no more than a cartridge of cannabis oil high in CBD is a cigarette. And yet all three are now tied with the same red tape.

In August, a landmark report found e-cigarettes to be 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes — and also found no evidence that e-cigarettes lead children or nonsmokers to start puffing on Marlboro Reds after a few pulls on the vape. That would upend much of the reason behind the new push to regulate e-cigarettes — but that study was conducted by Public Health England, and despite ringing endorsements from public health officials and cancer researchers urging smokers to start vaping, it does not appear to have much traction among American lawmakers.

"Unfortunately," Gieringer adds, "our own nanny-state health officials are no more honest about e-cigs than they are about marijuana."

It's unpopular and foolish to defend tobacco. But it's also dishonest to say an e-cigarette is the exact same thing as a cigarette. And most unfortunately, it's this kind of tax-minded rush to judgment that fuels Trump supporters' mistrust of government. If you catch a whiff of bubblegum at a Trump victory party, you know who to blame.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated e-cigarettes would not be allowed on military property.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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