California Plan to Ban Flavored Tobacco Hits Roadblock

June 6, 2019 Updated: June 6, 2019

A bill to outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco, SB-38, was shelved in California after a large number of amendments had been enacted making exemptions. The author of the bill, State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) abandoned the watered-down version of his bill on May 23 after public health groups voiced opposition.

Due to the watering down of the bill’s original intentions, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society Action Network and the American Heart Association, who were initial supporters of the bill pulled their support.

“Exempting hookah products set a terrible precedent and undermine the foundation of the original legislation to protect youth, low income and minority communities from flavored tobacco,” the three groups stated in a letter to Senator Hill, referring to the alterations to the bill as “hostile amendments.”

The bill was introduced to address a record increase in youth abuse of flavored tobacco products in the state after e-cigarettes became commonplace around the beginning of the decade. A cornucopia of flavors ranging from strawberry, cotton candy, fruit punch, grape, and a number of others began to draw the concern of lawmakers in the state that youth abuse may become an issue.

A report by the CDC released in November showed an alarming increase in e-cigarette usage among middle and high school students in the US. The study showed that between 2017 and 2018, over 3.6 million children used e-cigarettes. From 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use by high school students rose from 11.7 to 20.8 percent.

The legislation, aimed at curbing this drastic increase, was initially met with praise by public health groups, but health advocates blame tobacco industry lobbying for sinking the bill.

In the state assembly, all tobacco related bills died after a key committee refused to hear them. Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), who chairs the Governmental Organization committee, declined to be interviewed on the subject.

It was found that both Assemblyman Gray and his vice chair, Frank Bigelow (R-Madera) received campaign contributions from tobacco companies Juul Laboratories and R.J. Reynolds. Juul Laboratories gave $4,700 each to Gray and Bigelow, while R.J. Reynolds gave $9,400 each.

Unlike the assembly bills, the state senate version did manage reach the main floor and was pending a vote before Senator Hill pulled the legislation.

Juul Laboratories argued that the bill was an unnecessary piece of legislation. The company claims its goal is to help smokers quit traditional tobacco by using a non-smoke alternative vapor.

The company has also claimed that it has taken steps to keep tobacco products out of the hands of underage consumers. The firm has ceased the sale of flavored tobacco products in stores and requires the purchases to be made online on a site that attempts to screen out underage buyers.

The American Cancer Association, however has been critical of the number of campaign contributions that tobacco companies have made towards Assembly members since last year’s elections.

Juul contributed $135,000 to campaigns in the 2018 election season, with a particularly large amount of donations going towards the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, which regulates tobacco.

While SB-38 has been shelved in the state senate and its counterparts in the state assembly have also been shot down, the Assembly did approve a bill, AB 1718, a ban on smoking on state beaches, which passed 57-19. It now heads to the Senate to be considered. Both Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown vetoed similar legislation, but lawmakers in favor of the bill are hopeful that Governor Newsom will be different.

Meanwhile, the city of Beverly Hills approved a ban on the sale of tobacco products on June 4, making it the first city in the country to prohibit the sale of such products. The new law will go into effect in 2021.