What Newsom got right and what Trump got wrong about vaping

By Adam Gray, Special to CalMatters

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his executive order on vaping on Monday, he got right what President Trump got wrong. 

The governor’s executive order targets both nicotine and marijuana enforcement and gives his agencies until October to develop specific recommendations on how the state should best respond to these issues.

 Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency medicine physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School, wrote of President Trump’s proposal: “Banning flavored e-cigarettes as a way of combating the outbreak of vaping-associated lung illnesses is like banning all cheeseburgers because of an E. coli outbreak on two lettuce farms. It’s the wrong solution to the wrong problem. It makes us feel like we are doing something, but it won’t actually help.”

It took a doctor to cut through media reports which have erroneously identified the flavors in e-cigarettes as the cause of more than 500 reported vaping related lung illnesses. This is not to discount the role flavors have played in the teen vaping epidemic. But it is not sound science to conflate the two issues.

 As chair of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, I’ve met with representatives from the California Department of Public Health who explained that all but one of the vaping-related lung illnesses reported in California is attributable to marijuana vape pens purchased on the black market. 

While that sounds like good news for California’s legal marijuana marketplace, early reports have attributed vitamin E acetate as the problem ingredient. Surprisingly, that is not prohibited from being used in the manufacture of legal marijuana vape pens. 

Even if another ingredient emerges as the key issue, there are no guarantees legal marijuana vapes won’t contain that ingredient as well.

The governor’s directive has put words into action, and the Legislature has a bill in place to turn those actions into law.

Assembly Bill 1639—which I authored with Assembly members Jordan Cunningham, Republican from San Luis Obispo, Robert Rivas, Democrat from Hollister, and Sydney Kamlager-Dove, Los Angeles Democrat—contains many of the provisions needed to properly regulate e-cigarette marketing.

However, the bill does not yet go far enough to address the other important issues facing the state and the vaping technology industry.

Given how little we know about vapes and their link to the lung illnesses being reported across the country, it may be time to impose a moratorium on the technology as a whole, regardless of what drug it is being used to deliver.

If we are unwilling to put a moratorium in place, then we must radically alter our current approach to regulating vaping technology. 

The wild west of e-cigarette marketing and advertising must come to an end. 

  • The Department of Public Health must step up enforcement and education efforts to keep products out of the hands of kids and help to familiarize parents and teachers with these easily concealed devices.
  • The Bureau of Cannabis Control should immediately begin testing for unsafe ingredients, then ban them. The bureau should also work with the Department of Food and Agriculture to expand the cannabis track-and-trace system to get black market vapes off the market.
  • The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration must adopt a track-and-trace system for e-cigarettes similar to the highly successful program in place for traditional cigarettes. 
  • The Tax and Fee Administration should replace its inadequate tax on e-cigarettes with a tax targeting nicotine content that creates parity between taxes on e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes.

During the next three months when the Legislature is not meeting, I intend to hold an informational hearing to better understand the current regulatory environment. 

My colleagues and I will seek to identify where existing efforts have failed, and discuss recommendations made by the California Department of Public Health and the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration consistent with Gov. Newsom’s executive order.

We will use what we learn to expand the provisions of the AB 1639 and, with support from fellow legislators, have the bill ready to send to the governor in January.

Until we know more, users of vapes and e-cigarettes should take the advice issued by the Centers for Disease Control and refrain from using these products further.

Assemblyman Adam Gray is a Democrat from Merced, representing Assembly District 21, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his previous commentaries for CalMatters, please click here, and here.

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