A former smoker turned vaper, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is becoming one of the biggest advocates for electronic cigarettes in Congress.
Hunter has pushed legislation to protect the growing industry, and made headlines this week when he puffed from an e-cigarette during a congressional hearing.
“There is no burning,” added Hunter. “There is nothing noxious about this whatsoever. This has helped thousands of people quit smoking. It’s helped me quit smoking."
Hunter was protesting an amendment that would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes on airplanes, which passed with some Republican support.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who sponsored the amendment banning e-cigarettes on airplanes, thought Hunter’s vaping was funny, particularly because she believes it helped her win the vote of Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who had to sweep away a cloud of smoke from Hunter’s e-cigarette with her hand.
“Imagine what it would be like if you were sitting next to him on an airplane,” Norton joked.
Hunter did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The California Republican’s show of support for e-cigarettes was no mere publicity stunt.
E-cigarette officials say Hunter has been leading the charge for them in Congress, waging fights to deregulate the industry, stop an e-cigarette airline ban and protect the right to smoke on military bases.
Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said Hunter is a “champion” for the e-cigarette industry.
“He’s absolutely the most vocal proponent of vapor products in Congress,” Conley said.
"Being a former smoker, Hunter understands the challenges more than anyone,” said Cynthia Cabrera, executive director of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association. “He’s lived it himself, he’s experienced the struggles of quitting first hand, and he understands that we have an opportunity to help move people away from cigarettes."
“This guy is out in front of the issue,” Cabrera added. “He’s owning it. Hardly anyone is willing to stand up there and say, ‘Hey, people are dying from smoking cigarettes. We need to look at other options.’ The fact that he’s willing to bring attention to it is great."
Hunter said last year that e-cigarettes helped him quit smoking traditional cigarettes and could "very well save my life.”
“Yes, I vape — as do millions of other Americans,” Hunter wrote in a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “And why do I vape? It is because it prevents me from smoking the real thing.”
His letter came after Pelosi boasted about killing a policy rider in the government spending bill that would have provided vapers with greater access to e-cigarettes.
Hunter recalled his own struggles with smoking, dating back to his time as a Marine.
“E-cigarettes are a suitable alternative to cigarettes, and they could very well save my life, as well as the lives of so many Americans who are making their best effort to quit cigarettes,” Hunter wrote.
“Ironically, by not supporting the commercial availability of e-cigarettes, with all their advancements in recent years, you are giving your support — whether intended or not — to traditional cigarettes and other products,” he added.
Hunter is also trying to help the e-cigarette industry stave off government regulation. He is pushing back against new rules from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that critics say would destroy the industry.
The FDA is in the process of finalizing new rules for e-cigarettes.
The so-called deeming regulation would give the FDA the authority to review e-cigarettes before they hit the market. But critics say this would essentially be a deathblow for the industry, because the agency has a backlog of tobacco products that could slow approval for newer e-cigarettes.
The FDA Deeming Authority Clarification Act, which Hunter is co-sponsoring, would roll back those proposed restrictions.
It’s unclear with the legislation will see action, despite Republican control of House.
Though Hunter has been vocal about his personal desire to quit smoking, he has also given support to more traditional tobacco products.
In 2014, Hunter authored an amendment to the defense funding bill that seeking to overturn a proposed military smoking ban. The Pentagon was planning to ban tobacco sales on Navy bases and ships, though it would not necessarily have prohibited sailors from smoking.
At the time, Hunter defended soldiers’ right to smoke.
“We sleep in the dirt for this country,” he told the Washington Free Beacon. “We get shot at for this country. But we can’t have a cigarette if we want to for this country, because that’s unhealthy.”
The tobacco industry has opened its coffers to help Hunter. Since 2010, he’s received more than $38,000 in campaign contributions from companies that make both traditional and electronic cigarettes, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the current election cycle, Altria Group, Inc., which has ties to Philip Morris, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company have each contributed $5,000 to Hunter. Lorillard Tobacco Company, which later merged with Reynolds, donated $5,000 to the congressman in 2014.
Hunter has also received smaller contributions from cigar makers.