Silence can speak volumes. On Wednesday, for example, it confirmed that e-cigarette companies want to sell to your children and that they're not to be trifled with.
The occasion was a sensible bill to prevent the Internet sale of e-cigs to minors. Authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, Assembly Bill 1500 would have required age verification for e-cigarette mail orders, plus an adult signature upon delivery, like, say, Internet wine shipments.
The bill sailed through an earlier committee, for good reason. E-cigarettes, which turn liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapor, are a growing public health worry. Though proponents claim they are safer than ordinary cigarettes because they don't generate tars and toxins like burning tobacco, research on their health risks has barely started.
There's also the question of whether e-cigarettes are a teen gateway to regular cigarettes, which is partly why the Food and Drug Administration has proposed a ban on sales to minors.
California already restricts sales to kids, but they still can get them online with no proof of age needed. That loophole seemed as fixable as it was obvious until Wednesday, when it came to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
There, 10 of the panel's 17 members simply and suddenly took a walk, and AB 1500 went up in vapor, silently.
What happened? This was a Democrat's bill in a Democrat-dominated committee, aimed at protecting children from a threat to their health. The bill needed nine votes to advance, but got only a half-dozen. At least Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, had some semblance of a rationale for his sole no vote. The five Democrats who abstained offered no explanation.
Perhaps a clue lay in the top-billing Capitol lobbyists who represent e-cigarette makers Altria, LOEC, Inc., and VMR Products. Or in the tens of thousands of dollars that some of those Democrats have taken from them in campaign contributions. (We're looking at you, Assemblymen Ian Calderon and Steven Bradford, Los Angeles-area lawmakers who three weeks ago took $4,100 donations from Altria, the world's largest cigarette maker and a player in the e-cigarette business.)
We may never know whether silence, in this case, was golden. Maybe the bill was just too protective, though that hasn't stopped similar legislation. In 2011, for instance, a ban on the sale of alcohol at self-service checkout lines passed easily in the Assembly - to protect the children, as Democrats solemnly noted. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents store clerks, wanted the bill to protect jobs. Among the aye votes in 2011 were two of Wednesday's abstentions. (Now we're looking at you, Assemblywomen Nora Campos, a Santa Clara County Democrat, and Bradford, again.)
In any case, the message was loud and clear on Wednesday: Somebody wants children to be able to keep mail-ordering e-cigarettes. And they've become powerful enough that party loyalty won't stop them. 'Nuff said.