E-Cigarette Bill’s Next Stop: Committee Known for Killing Tobacco Legislation

The stiffest test of a bill regulating electronic cigarettes is expected to come on Wednesday — not in the health, appropriations or business and professions committees, but in the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization.

After passage in the state Senate, it’s the first committee stop in the Assembly for SB 140 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). It could be a rocky reception.

Government Organization is the committee that halted a similar bill last session (SB 648 by former Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-Hayward), and put the brakes on a comparatively innocuous bill this year that proposed banning tobacco products at baseball parks, (AB 768 by Assembly member Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond).

“Yes, usually tobacco bills go there to die,” said Rachel Barry, a tobacco policy researcher at the UC-San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

“That committee has not historically been a committee supportive of tobacco control bills,” Barry said.

Barry is co-author of a 2014 UCSF report that outlined the tobacco industry’s growing influence in California politics. She said the usual practice in the Assembly is to route tobacco bills through that committee. 

The Corbett bill started as legislation holding e-cigarettes to the same regulations for smoking in public places. It became a bill that prohibited e-cigarette sales in vending machines within 15 feet of the doors of adult establishments.

The Thurmond bill went from one that banned tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from all baseball parks in California to legislation that banned smokeless tobacco products from professional baseball parks — minor and major leagues.

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in terms of passing legislation,” said Elizabeth Cox, a UCSF tobacco policy researcher who worked with Barry on the 2014 report.

“The members on the committee tend to take more tobacco [campaign contributions],” Cox said. “They tend to be in more competitive races, they tend to be from swing districts, where they need more money and are more willing to accept money from tobacco interests.”

The 21-member committee is chaired by Assembly member Adam Gray (D-Merced). Vice chair is Assembly member Eric Linder (R-Corona).

Lauren Dutra, an epidemiologist at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said she knows nothing about the politics of passing anti-tobacco legislation — but was adamant that a bill like Leno’s should be vetted by the Health committee.

“Government Organization?” Dutra said. “E-cigarettes are a health issue. I don’t think anyone should have to breathe something they don’t want to breathe.”

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