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Public Health Director Calls E-Cigarettes a ‘Serious Risk’ to Californians’ Health

On Wednesday, the director of the California Department of Public Health issued a public health warning about the hazards of electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes.

“E-cigarettes pose a serious risk to smokers and those exposed to the aerosol [produced by e-cigarette vaporizers],” said CDPH director Ron Chapman yesterday.

Chapman said the department intends to increase public education and awareness efforts about the dangers of e-cigarettes. California voters passed Proposition 99 in 1988 that imposed a 25-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes, some of which is earmarked for anti-tobacco advertising and education. Chapman said he expects to use part of that tax, which contributed $42 million in 2014 to anti-smoking campaigns, to e-cigarette public education.

“As for how we’re going to do that, it’s still in the planning stages,” Chapman said. “We can use Prop. 99 for that. The Food and Drug Administration considers e-cigarettes to be a tobacco product.”

The public health warning comes a few days after a new law was proposed in the Legislature to hold e-cigarettes to the same regulations governing traditional cigarettes. SB 140 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would include a ban on e-cigarette smoking in workplaces, restaurants and other public places, and it would increase penalties for selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Two proposed e-cigarette regulations were defeated last year in the Legislature, as well as a 2009 proposed law that was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

California does have a law banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

Chapman laid out a number of smoker and public health concerns:

  • E-cigarettes contain at least 10 chemicals listed as toxic by the state of California, including benzene, lead, nickel and formaldehyde;
  • Those exposed to nicotine aerosol also are at-risk;
  • There has been a big rise in e-cigarette use among young people, marketed by tobacco companies with flavors like bubble gum, gummi bear or cherry; and
  • Children are at risk of poisoning, in part because the liquids used in e-cigarettes can be absorbed through the skin.

“We have seen an alarming spike in accidental e-cigarette poisoning,” Chapman said, from 7 reported cases in 2012 to 154 last year. “Those calls now make up 60% of all calls we receive.”

“E-cigarettes are attracting a whole new group of kids and may be a gateway to traditional cigarettes,” Chapman said. “It is a wake up call … It’s a growing threat that needs to be addressed.”

A few other states — including Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arkansas — have issued public health warnings about e-cigarettes.

Last year’s legislative session advanced two bills to target e-cigarettes, but both stalled.

  • SB 648 by Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) started out with similar language to this year’s proposal by Leno. A watered-down version of that bill, which only banned sale of e-cigarettes in vending machines, died in committee.
  • AB 1500 by Assembly member Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) would have banned Internet sales of e-cigarettes in California. It was held in Appropriations.

Also, in 2009 one bill made it all the way through the Legislature, but SB 400, also authored by Corbett, was vetoed by Schwarzenegger.

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