By Larry Cohen
February 4, 2015
Read the original Op-Ed at the Sacramento Bee
Last week, the California Department of Public Health issued a health advisory and new report declaring e-cigarettes "a community health threat." The report cites new data on the public health risks presented by e-cigarettes (the vapor alone contains at least 10 toxic chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects); rising e-cigarette use among teenagers, which surpassed traditional cigarette use in 2014; and mounting calls to California poison control centers related to e-cigarettes. These concerning trends are emerging in tandem with widespread misinformation about the dangers of e-cigarettes and a 1,200% jump in e-cigarette advertising between 2011 and 2013.
We applaud the state Department of Public Health for raising the alarm about e-cigarettes. This is a necessary first step, and a powerful call to action for advocates and regulators here in California and across the country. Until now, the threat e-cigarettes pose to the public's health has not been taken seriously enough, with many regulators adopting a "wait-and-see" attitude or buying into e-cigarette manufacturers' dubious claims that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes. We can't afford this inaction any longer. Currently, e-cigarettes slip through the cracks of many local smoke-free policies that have been protecting communities across the US for decades, a policy gap that we need to close now. California now has an opportunity to retake its position as a national public health leader on the issue of tobacco control.
In the early 1980s, I worked with a coalition of health leaders to pass the first multi-city smoke-free policies in the United States. When we started our efforts, unrestricted smoking was a norm too established to change, and many people thought the tobacco industry was too big to fight. Today, we know better. The cumulative success of hundreds of local smoke-free policies in communities throughout the U.S. snowballed into a nationwide and international movement to protect non-smokers from the deadly dangers of secondhand smoke. In the process, norms have dramatically changed. As a result, smoking in public places is no longer socially acceptable and rates of smoking have gone down significantly. In many places-though certainly not all-smoking has faded to the margins of public life, and the public health gains have been enormous.
E-cigarettes threaten to undo these public health victories by reintroducing smoking to our workplaces, restaurants, bars, and other public spaces where traditional cigarettes are banned. Hard-fought public health policies that ban smoking have changed our communities from the ground up, creating new expectations and norms around smoking. That's why we need to act now to regulate e-cigarettes the way we do other tobacco products, which means cracking down on the production, marketing, sale, and use of e-cigarettes.
Given the success of the tobacco control movement in regulating tobacco products and advancing proactive policies, the tobacco industry has been forced to seek out new markets (mostly overseas) and new products like e-cigarettes. We should not underestimate the boundless creativity of a killer industry. E-cigarettes remind us of the importance of remaining vigilant and prepared to address Big Tobacco tactics with the regulatory and advocacy strategies that have saved so many lives already. There may not be smoke this time, but there is certainly a fire. Let's put it out before it grows.