The California Legislature this past week approved a far-reaching package of anti-nicotine bills. Republicans objected, but Democrats insisted the state – despite having some of the lowest smoking rates in the nation – must do more to fight Big Tobacco. The package is so far-reaching, in fact, California’s pre-eminent liberal-leaning editorial page panned it.

“In its zeal to stand up to the tobacco industry, the California Legislature has gone too far with a new package of proposed laws that would trample on the rights of adults — yes, even smokers have rights! — and prematurely treat electronic cigarettes the same as their dangerous smoke-based brethren,” opined the Los Angeles Times.

Boosting the smoking age to 21 is the most hotly contested portion of the package. That battle pits the science (teenage brains are wired to get easily hooked on tobacco) against individual choice. In most areas of life, 18-year-olds are considered adults. To placate such complaints – “old enough to fight in a war, not old enough to buy cigarettes” – legislators exempted members of the military from the boosted purchase-age rules.

Whatever one thinks of raising the age, at least the idea is based on scientific research. The anti-vaping portion of this legislative package is hard to fathom – based more on anti-nicotine zealotry than on a sensible consideration of the facts. Bottom line: most vapers find it a satisfying and relatively safe way to break the tobacco-smoking habit.

“The scientific evidence for supporting the California Tobacco 21 Initiative is strong and is based on an Institute of Medicine Report,” explained Ed Anselm, a New York City physician and R Street senior fellow. “There is no similar body of evidence that would support the other bill before the governor, which would classify of electronic cigarettes as tobacco products. Many of the recent declines in smoking are attributed to the use of electronic cigarettes.”

The governmental reaction against vaping reminds me of famed journalist H.L. Mencken’s definition about puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Indeed, vaping can be an enjoyable means to get a nicotine fix – far more enjoyable than many alternatives anti-smoking activists seem to prefer.

Here’s where the Times editorial really sings:

Vaping is a public health concern, but a distinct one requiring its own set of restrictions. There’s no evidence, for example, that the emissions associated with second-hand vaping are even a fraction as dangerous as those of traditional cigarettes. Simply extending all the rules that California adopted to protect the public from the effects of second-hand smoke doesn’t make sense before the facts are all in.

But who would expect calm, scientific-based discussions on the floor of the Legislature? Indeed, government’s overall approach to “vice” issues rarely are sensible. When I first started smoking occasional cigars, I tried to find the best health research. But official warnings seemed to overstate the threat vastly as a means to scare people away from smoking them. Few cigar smokers smoke – let alone inhale – several a day, which was one common assumption. No one would argue any form of tobacco is healthy, but it’s hard to believe those who puff the occasional cigar are causing themselves the same level of danger as cigarette chain smokers.

That reminds me of the anti-vaping activists. It may not be as healthy as chewing on a celery stick, but is vaping such a grave danger that e-cigarettes ought to be treated the same as regular cigarettes?

Those who want to do so argue that some teens who might not otherwise smoke will take up vaping. That no doubt happens. But current evidence suggests the health risks are small. The very act of living and breathing – not to mention driving – entails risk. It would have been nice had California legislators at least made some meaningful distinctions. That leaves Gov. Jerry Brown in his familiar role – to rein in a Legislature that has gone too far.

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