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E-cigarette study could propel law: Sen. Mark Leno seeks to classify vapor cigs as tobacco product

Mark Leno

A new study that health advocates say proves electronic cigarettes contain cancer-causing chemicals could help boost legislative efforts to regulate the increasingly popular, and highly debated, nicotine products.

The Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health released a study Wednesday that found high levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde in a majority of the most popular e-cigarettes — the nonprofit is also planning to file a lawsuit alleging these manufacturers violated California’s Proposition 65 by not warning consumers.

This study is the first-ever large sampling of actual e-cigarettes and found 90 percent of the major companies tested had a product with one or both of the chemicals known to cause cancer and that are linked to genetic damage, birth defects and reduced fertility, according to the center.

“For decades, the tobacco industry mounted a campaign of lies about cigarettes, and now these same companies claim that their e-cigarettes are harmless. Anyone who thinks that vaping is harmless needs to know that our testing unequivocally shows that it’s not safe to vape,” the center’s Executive Director Michael Green said in a press release. “Consumers need to know that the smoke from e-cigarettes is far less from harmless vapor, but is in fact a cancer-causing cocktail of toxic chemicals.”

Yet e-cigarette industry advocates argue the scientific testing of e-cigarettes needs to be refined and compared to combustible or traditional cigarettes, vapor products are less harmful, according to the Smoke Free Alternative Trade Association, or SFATA.

While scientists continue to probe the vapor products, state and city efforts to regulate where they can be used and how they’re distributed are underway.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, recently authored a bill calling for the state to classify e-cigarettes as a tobacco product and consequentially, prohibit them from being used at a variety of public places such as schools, restaurants and on public transportation. Leno’s Senate Bill X2-5, is similar to one authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and would also require the liquid nicotine to be sold in child-resistant packaging — a response to drastic increases in the number of poisonings over the last few years, which went from 1,543 in 2013 to nearly 4,000 in 2014, according to reports.

Leno’s bill passed the Senate last week and is now in the Assembly where it will likely first be heard in the committee on public health.

The center hired an independent lab to test 97 products purchased from Rite-Aid, 7-Eleven, online and Bay Area vapor stores between February and July 2015. The results showed 21 products produced one of the chemicals at a level more than 10 times the state’s safety standard and seven products produced one of the chemicals at more than 100 times the safety level, according to the center.

Although e-cigarettes are frequently touted as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco, the tests found one nicotine-free product produced acetaldehyde at more than 13 times the state’s legal safety threshold and formaldehyde at more than 74 times the threshold, according to the center.

Others contend e-cigarettes are a better alternative to traditional tobacco products and the industry is not completely opposed to certain regulations, according to the SFATA.

“It also is essential to note that vapor products are considered 95 percent less harmful than combustible cigarettes and are a contributing factor to the recent decline in cigarette smoking,” according to the SFATA, which cited a recent report conducted by Public Health England. “Vapor products are intended only for adult smokers and adult vapers and the industry does not market to underage consumers and fully supports age restrictions on their use,” according to the SFATA.

But lawmakers are only beginning to catch up to the e-cigarette industry’s growing market. Various efforts have been made to classify the smokeless e-cigarettes as tobacco products and deter them from being marketed to youth.

Locally, cities across the county have enacted or begun to consider their own policies to tighten tobacco regulations that include e-cigarettes while state efforts have stalled.

Now, Leno is hopeful this study continues to highlight the need for a statewide policy.

“This study reconfirms what other major public health agencies have found, which is that most e-cigarette products contain chemicals known to cause cancer. This is especially concerning given that the fastest growing segment of e-cigarette smokers is middle and high school students,” Leno wrote in an email. “It is unacceptable for the state of California to continue to let this unregulated industry sell its tobacco and nicotine products to both young people and adults with such little oversight. We must act now in order to protect public health.”

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