Rep. Jackie Speier last week proposed federal legislation to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco products. Forgive us if our hopes are less than high.
Only a few months ago, state lawmakers in California were full of plans to limit the sketchy electronic devices, which heat a nicotine solution to create vapor that may or may not be hazardous to the health of those who inhale it.
Because the jury is still out - and because the federal Food and Drug Administration is considering e-cig regulations - state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett wanted, like Speier, to apply the state's other smoking bans to electronic smoking. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, wanted to limit the online sale of all tobacco products, e-cigs included.
Both were laudable measures, aimed at keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands - and lungs - of impressionable minors. Unfortunately, impressionable minors are precisely the market being targeted by the e-cigarette industry and the powerful tobacco companies that increasingly control it.
So last month, as tobacco lobbyists approvingly looked on, Dickinson's bill was quietly snuffed out by a cowardly handful of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. And Corbett's bill was winnowed down into a ban on vending machine sales of e-cigs, then further amended to make it clear that e-cigarettes aren't regular cigarettes, legally speaking.
That sounds like a minor thing, but health advocates say that it actually undermines regulatory efforts. If Big Tobacco can show that states treat e-cigarettes as a separate category of tobacco products, the reasoning goes, then their lawyers can argue for legislative loopholes that exempt them from smoking bans and other tobacco restrictions.
Though Corbett and legislative staffers who worked on the bill say that probably couldn't happen under this state's statutes, the tweak in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee certainly had the pro-tobacco crowd cheering. "We were successful in getting the bill amended so that e-cigarettes are separately defined," Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association crowed in an alert on Wednesday.
Now, though Corbett - a longtime voice for health on the e-cigarette issue - says she is hoping to at least make this one, tiny step in the fight to keep the things away from minors, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and others want to kill what they now see as a Trojan horse full of pro-tobacco ammo.
No wonder Stanton Glantz, the longtime researcher and anti-tobacco advocate at the University of California, San Francisco, refers to the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee as the place "where good tobacco legislation goes to die."
It's discouraging, and disgusting, to see how easily Big Tobacco has blocked progress on this public health issue. So while we wish Speier all the best in her quest to make progress in Congress, it's hard to imagine Washington summoning the backbone to do what even supposedly health-conscious California seems unable to do.
Here, there's little to say about meaningful e-cigarette legislation except R.I.P. until next session.