Citing ongoing concerns about the health impacts of vaping, three members of the Palo Alto City Council are proposing an urgency law that would ban the sale and distribution of electronic cigarettes.
The proposal from Councilwoman Alison Cormack, Vice Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilman Greg Tanaka follow recent reports about widespread vaping at local schools and a recommendation from the Human Relations Commission, which discussed the topic in September and which made a case for restricting vaping during an Oct. 21 study session with the council.
Gabriel Kralik, chairman of the Human Relations Commission, likened vaping to an acute public health crisis and pointed to the growing number of people who have developed severe lung disease — in some cases, fatal — from vaping. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 2,290 cases of lung injury associated with vaping as of Nov. 20, as well as 47 confirmed deaths.
"These products should be taken off the shelves," Kralik said at the Oct. 21 meeting. "They are dangerous. There is no explanation for why people are dying, no explanation for why people are getting serious lung illness, and you have a third of high school students who have vaped in the last month."
Councilwoman Lydia Kou alluded at the meeting to a Santa Clara County-sponsored health conference that she had recently attended. The event included a teen panel, where each speaker mentioned that when they reported vaping activities to teachers and school administrators, no one really did anything, she said.
"Where is the failure there?" she asked.
Tanaka similarly said he was concerned about the high number of students who are reportedly vaping at local schools. Students around Palo Alto are able to obtain vaping products without much trouble, he said. He stressed the importance of actually enforcing restrictions that already exist.
"I just want to make sure that whatever we do is actually effective," Tanaka said.
The council plans to consider the memo on Dec. 9.
A recent countywide survey underscores the extent of the problem. The California Student Tobacco Survey, which was released in August and which considered responses from 6,700 students from 12 schools throughout the county, indicated that 31% of high school students had tried electronic cigarettes and that 13% off those surveyed had vaped within the prior month.
The memo from the three council members calls for preparing an urgency ordinance prohibiting the sale and distribution of all electronic cigarettes, with as few exemptions as possible. They are also requesting that staff identify ways to support legislations that would make it harder for minors to successfully order electronic cigarette products online. This could include, for example, requiring a signature from someone at least 21 years old during delivery.
The memo also recommends that the city allocate $25,000 to a working group of community stakeholders to "develop programs to educate and inform teens and families about the health effects of electronic cigarettes and to address the conditions that lead to teens using them for social reasons or for stress relief."
Palo Alto is part of a broader effort throughout the region to address teen vaping. Just this month, Santa Clara County updated its own retailer permit to expand its prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco products. The update applies to the prohibition to adult-only smoke shops that make 60% of their sales on tobacco products. As part of the update, it also bans the sale of electronic devices during renewals of retail permits.
Because the county administers and enforces the city's retail requirements for smoking, the expanded prohibition will have a greater impact in Palo Alto, which has seven smoke shops, than it has had in unincorporated parts of the county, according to the memo.
Commissioner Steven Lee noted during the Oct. 21 discussion that the city already has some statutes on the books.
"But when we look around to neighboring communities, we see there is still room to improve in terms of policies on the books, as well as other things we can do in terms of education and funding services that either help prevent teens from using the vaping equipment or help treat (them)," Lee said.