According to the latest Gallup poll, 80 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. That is quite an overwhelming figure. While I am not attempting to move that number down, I feel compelled to give kudos where kudos are due—and today that is to Congress, on a public health measure no less!
On January 11, Congress passed the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act, requiring that containers of liquid nicotine—typically used to refill electronic smoking devices—meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission standards established to prevent children under age five from opening the container. President Obama signed the bill on January 28. With the rise in popularity of electronic smoking devices came increased calls to poison control centers around the country and at least one reported death of a young child due to ingestion of liquid nicotine. While the Act will not interfere with adults’ access to the product, it should prevent ingestion of liquid nicotine by children, who can become quite ill or die from the exposure.
As with many public health measures, state and local jurisdictions around the country had already taken action to impose packaging standards for liquid nicotine. At least 16 states had passed such laws prior to Congressional action and several counties around the country had also done so. Working closely with state and local public health officials for nearly two decades of my career, this does not surprise me—effective public health policy often starts at the local level and grows into the state legislatures. Clean indoor air laws are a fine example of that common trajectory. Not many folks working in public health look to Congress to provide leadership or aggressive action in public health policy. And, frankly, that’s the way it should be for the most part. Local public health officials and legislators are better able to gauge the needs of their community and to develop appropriate policy responses.
But there are circumstances that warrant Congressional or federal agency action in public health. Establishing good manufacturing standards for ubiquitous consumer products that present a risk of harm is certainly an appropriate federal action. Liquid nicotine, essentially unheard of five years ago, has become one of those ubiquitous products. Often contained in colorful packaging to advertise fruity or candy-like flavors, liquid nicotine can be attractive to children. Imposing the existing federal standard for child-resistant packaging is good public health policy. Congress could have waited for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take action. In 2014, the FDA proposed regulations to include electronic smoking devices and liquid nicotine within products the agency regulates pursuant to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. But the so-called deeming regulation has not been finalized and an additional round of regulatory proposal and comment period would have been required for the agency to impose packaging requirements for liquid nicotine. Rather than wait as more children suffer from nicotine exposure, Congress stepped up to the plate. The public health community ought to take notice and, at least for a little while, give Congress a break—or a thank you.
This blog was prepared by Kathleen Hoke, director of the Network for Public Health Law--Eastern Region located at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.