The way people smoke is changing. More accurately, “smoking” is disappearing entirely as e-cigarettes and vaping steadily take over for both tobacco and marijuana users. And of course, a San Francisco firm is “at the front” of this culture disruption, as The New Yorker wrote last year.
With a combination of distinctive design and idiot-proof ease of use, the Pax — sleek, dark, handheld, and identifiable by a signature “X” of LED lights — has become the iPhone of vaporizers. At $250, Alabama Street-headquartered Ploom has managed to sell “well over a half-million” units, company founder James Monsees told me as we sat in a smokeless conference room that smelled faintly of wintergreen pipe tobacco. This is enough success to justify a follow-up model (the “Pax 2,” announced earlier this week) as well as a rebranding of the company (from Ploom to PAX, after its signature product).
Other companies are playing catch-up on a playing field that's about to get stricter. Alarmed by vapes' appeal to adolescents and by a near total lack of regulations, a growing number of public health advocates and politicians are pushing for tough rules on vapes and e-cigarettes. And of course, San Francisco is leading the way on restrictions, too.
Ads that juxtapose a young black man puffing on a vape with a cigaratte-smoking Marlboro Man accompanying the declaration that e-cigarettes are “harmful, like cigarettes” — a message paid for by the city's Department of Public Health — started appearing on Muni vehicles and in BART stations earlier this year. Momentum for this crusade started last year, when the city's Board of Supervisors passed laws that regulate e-cigarettes the same way tobacco is regulated.
This means anywhere in San Francisco that a cigarette is not allowed, e-cigs or vapes are also not allowed. The entire state could soon follow suit: Last month, state Sen. Mark Leno introduced a bill that would do the same on the state level and add e-cigarettes and vapes to California's definition of “tobacco products.” San Francisco's other representatives in Sacramento, Assemblymen David Chiu and Phil Ting, have signed on as co-sponsors.
This is all happening with typical Twitter-age speed, which means regulations are preceding the research.
It's hard to make informed decisions without appropriate data, and there is almost no data on exactly what health hazards e-cigarettes and vaporizers pose. “[C]onsumers currently don't know” if they're good or bad, according to the Food and Drug Administration. “Only a few studies have directly investigated the health effects of exposure to e-cigarette aerosol,” researchers from UCSF wrote in a 2013 report prepared for the World Health Organization. But despite this stated ignorance, this same report is being used as the factual basis for lawmakers to regulate e-cigarettes just like cigarettes. Based mostly on possible appeal to adolescents, the California Department of Public Health went even further, declaring e-cigarettes “a public health threat” in a January report.
Science may eventually catch up to policy. By then, the e-cigarette and vape regulations — which have the full endorsement of the antismoking establishment (the American Lung Association and American Heart Association are co-sposnors) as well as the state's influential law enforcement lobby — will likely be in effect.
Marijuana users also have a stake in this fight, according to California NORML executive director Dale Gieringer. In a formal opposition letter to Leno, Gieringer notes that the expanded definition of a “tobacco product” — “an electronic device that delivers nicotine or other substances to the person” — absolutely includes any vaporizer used to consume cannabis, like the Pax. Thus, a bill that bans e-cigarette and vaporizer use in a host of places, including “many private rental units and all places of employment,” means banning cannabis vaping there, too.
Leno's office contends that the bill doesn't touch medical marijuana use at all since current state law already bans cannabis smoking where tobacco smoking is prohibited. Further, enforcement of this law, if passed, is likely to be complaint-driven, meaning that nothing will happen unless someone makes a fuss. But that's not Gierigner's main beef.
“This sends the message that e-cigarettes are just as dangerous as smoking. It makes no distinction between vaporizer users and cigarette users,” he said. “It says that vaporizers and e-cigarette users have to be in smoking areas — which is ridiculous. Most of these people don't want to be in smoking areas — they don't want to be smoking! That's why they're vaporizing.”
There's plenty of precedent in state law for two different, but similar things to be regulated identically. Think automobiles and bicycles. These devices serve similar purposes in vastly different ways, all under identical statutes of the California Vehicle Code.
But what's really driving the push to regulate e-cigarettes ahead of the research may not be science or health, but money. Treating e-cigarettes like tobacco means e-cigarettes can be taxed like tobacco. The state currently levies a tax rate of almost 30 percent on tobacco. That's big money, but big money that's slowly getting smaller: Revenue from the state's tobacco tax dipped to $900 million last year from $1.2 billion in 2000, a trend that's destined to continue as tobacco smoking is further marginalized. Adding a fast-growing industry to the definition of tobacco means saving that revenue stream — which would be disbursed to many of the same labor, public health, and law enforcement groups behind Leno's legislation.
There's probably something unhealthy about e-cigarettes. There's something unhealthy about almost everything we do. Surely nobody can say with a straight face that puffing a Pax is identical to lunging a Marlboro. But that's exactly what lawmakers are saying, with San Francisco at the front.