Community Columns

What’s it like to testify at the State Capitol? This Modesto teen knows

Rana Banankhah, 14, testifies at an Assembly committee hearing at the State Capitol in Sacramento on July 10, 2019.
Rana Banankhah, 14, testifies at an Assembly committee hearing at the State Capitol in Sacramento on July 10, 2019. California Assembly

There I stood in front of legislators, advocating for a bill that would regulate the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. As I spoke into the microphone and heard my voice echo across the building, I wondered how I found myself testifying in front of an Assembly committee at the State Capitol.

Only a few weeks before, I was washing my hands in the school bathroom at Modesto High when a cloud of smoke rose to the ceiling. When the stall door opened, a young girl emerged with a thin, black device in her hand. She was using a JUUL — an electronic cigarette with exorbitant amounts of nicotine. In fact, just one JUUL pod contains an astounding 20 cigarettes-worth of nicotine. In scenarios like these, I fear for the health and well-being of my generation.

So I wrote an Op-Ed column concerning the regulation of e-cigarettes for The Modesto Bee. Assemblyman Adam Gray then reached out to meet me. Overwhelmed with surprise and excitement, I happily agreed to meet the assemblymember. We discussed how the opinions I shared in my Bee column aligned with regulations outlined in a package of bills, which Gray co-authored, regarding e-cigarette regulation. I was then invited to testify in a committee hearing for the bills, which would enforce stricter regulations on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

I was extremely grateful for the rare and incredible opportunity to make an impact on the legislative process. I rushed to my desk and hastily typed up a 7-minute-long speech with an urgent demand for regulatory reform.

However, just two days before the hearing, I spoke with the assemblyman’s staff and discovered that my testimony would be limited to a few minutes and must focus on why this particular bill would be the most effective solution. My testimony was to be more of a debate case. So I scrapped my speech and spent the next two days researching the bill.

To my dismay, I discovered that the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Vapor Technology Association all were opposed. Articles claimed the bill would be “protecting big tobacco.” My heart dropped. Was I doing the wrong thing? If this many people oppose the bill, I thought, something must be wrong.

The American Cancer Society demanded more restrictions because it wasn’t aggressive enough. Meanwhile, the Vapor Technology Association claimed that the bill was too aggressive and demanded less restriction. I decided to reread the bill, and determined there was nothing fundamentally wrong with it. In fact, I actually supported it. I immediately began to rewrite my testimony.

I realized that those who opposed the bill did so because instead of completely banning flavored e-cigarette products, it would limit their sales, except those with mint and menthol, to tobacco shops, making them much harder for kids to get. Laws require compromise, and while this bill didn’t call for an outright ban, it did drastically decrease its accessibility to minors.

With every passing day more of our youth become addicted to e-cigarettes. Compromise is essential to quick legislative reform. A bill that’s interpreted as too restrictive or not restrictive enough just won’t pass. This bill struck a good compromise.

So I walked to the stage and spoke to legislators about why I supported it. I recounted seeing peers use electronic cigarettes. I detailed the ease of purchasing them as a minor. And I demanded that we reach a middle ground, instead of arguing for the “perfect bill.”

After my testimony, Assemblyman Gray took questions, acknowledged concerns, and struck even more compromises with other legislators. When it came time to decide, the bill passed with a 16-0 vote.

It was truly gratifying to know my voice made a difference, and even more rewarding to know that in some small way, I made an effort to protect the health and vitality of my peers.

Rana Banankhah is a sophomore at Modesto High School. She wrote this commentary for The Modesto Bee.