Calling youth vaping a public health emergency that must be immediately addressed, Palo Alto Human Relations commissioners are urging the city to control vaping among teens, just as the California Department of Public Health has issued a warning about the health risks of the popular method of inhaling vaporized tobacco and marijuana using an e-cigarette.
The commissioners voted 5-0 on Sept. 12, with members Patricia Regehr and the Rev. Kaloma Smith absent, to send a memo asking the City Council to direct city staff to work with them, the Palo Alto Youth Council, Palo Alto Unified School District and community partners. Among the actions the commission is requesting: the exploration of changes to laws, regulations and enforcement; preventative, educational and outreach efforts; and additional funding for treatment and related services.
Vaping has become popular with youth, aided by chemical additives that taste and smell like cotton candy, watermelon and other flavors.
The memo, which was moved by Commissioner Steven Lee and seconded by Chair Gabriel Kralik, authorized Lee and Commissioners Daryl Savage and Valerie Stinger to draft the memo and Kralik, Savage and Stinger to form an ad hoc committee to study vaping.
"This is an emergent public need that needs to be addressed. It's a terrible phenomenon that's going on with our children," Kralik said after hearing a report from two experts from the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services and statements by a student and the parents of children who have become addicted.
Kyle Greenman and Samantha Rivas of Adolescent Counseling Services' Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, said vaping, which was introduced in 2007, has become the most common form of inhaling nicotine, with a 600% surge in sales between 2016 and 2017.
Depending on the product, the "pod" (which contains the vaping liquid) contains between 41 mg and 90 mg of nicotine; a traditional cigarette contains 20 mg. The vaping liquid also contains a wide range of cancer-causing chemicals, they said.
Authorities suspect the habit could be deadly. As of Tuesday, 90 people in California who have a history of vaping have been hospitalized for severe breathing problems and lung damage this year, and two people have died, according to the department.
On Tuesday, the health department issued a health advisory warning the public to refrain from vaping, no matter the substance or source, until current investigations into the cause of the reported serious lung damage have been completed. The advisory follows an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week to confront the growing youth-vaping epidemic and its health risks.
Almost one in three teens in Santa Clara County have tried electronic cigarettes, according to the California Student Tobacco Survey, which was administered last fall and published in August. The survey of 18 schools found that more than 13% of high school students currently use e-cigarettes, while only 1.4% currently smoke cigarettes.
The habit starts is fairly inexpensive to start. A liquid pod typically costs $8 to $10 and a device starts at $20. Teens often acquire them as gifts from a friend. Boyfriends and girlfriends often have matching vapes, Rivas said. The youngest child she has encountered with a vaping addiction was 12 years old.
Divya Ganesan, Youth Council secretary and a Castilleja School student, told the commissioners that vaping (also known as Juuling, after the popular Bay Area-based company Juul) is common in Palo Alto schools.
"I think if you talk to any teen nowadays and you say 'cigarettes,' they would probably say 'Eww. That's gross.' It's smoky; it makes your clothes smell and it makes you smell. But you talk to a kid who Juuls and Juuling does not make you smell," she said. "It looks kind of like the new iPhone. It's really sleek. It's like a USB drive. You plug it into your computer to charge it. The Juul pods are liquid, so it doesn't feel messy; it feels clean, making people think it is clean and that's not the case.
"I think the distinction of making Juul some kind of luxury brand that can be bought like an iPhone is what makes this such a different issue than other substances that teens have abused before like marijuana, alcohol, etc.," she said.
A mother who spoke before the commission, said her son, a Gunn High School student, became addicted last year.
"Our family went into shambles" trying to control his habit, she said.
Her son and about 50 students started attending smoking parties organized on SnapChat. They sneak the devices into classrooms and have contests to see who can smoke more puffs in class without getting caught. The school district doesn't have funding to catch kids who are vaping, she said.
Commissioners said they were stunned by the statistics.
"This is a pretty open-and-shut case of taking vulnerable teenagers and hurting them and causing havoc in families and causing havoc in schools," Kralik said.
He said noted that the Youth Council made a presentation to the City Council months ago, but the council has yet to take action, which he's found frustrating.
"There's a sense of urgency, and quite frankly, outrage that our public officials haven't taken action. The scale and breadth of this issue requires that we use ... all of the tools in our tool box. The city needs to make this a priority. We need the resources of the city to work with us," he said.