Palo Alto's campaign against vaping heated up Monday night, when the City Council agreed to ban the sales and distribution of electronic cigarettes at local stores.
By a unanimous vote, the council directed staff to prepare an ordinance that would impose the prohibition on sales of vaping products. In doing so, it joined a growing list of cities and counties that have passed anti-vaping laws, a list that includes San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and the cities of San Francisco, Livermore and Richmond.
In Palo Alto, the ban was sparked by reports of widespread vaping among high school students and recent entreaties from the Human Relations Commission and school advocates. At a study session on Oct. 21, commission Chairman Gabriel Kralik called vaping products "dangerous" and made the case for taking vaping equipment off the shelves at local shops and gas stations.
"Kids pick up these products and no one knows how to stop them from getting the serious lung illness," Kralik told the council.
Palo Alto's proposed ordinance will mirror the one that the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors adopted in November for unincorporated parts of the county. That law is set to take effect in July 2020. Once the ban is in place, sales and distributions of vaping and flavored cigarettes will become illegal in all retail establishments. This includes the city's six "adult only" stores in which sales of tobacco make up 60% or more of sales. Today, these stores are exempt from the city's existing restrictions on sales of tobacco products.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said Monday that while county's law applies to relatively few people, one of the goals of the effort was to help cities with their own efforts to address the growing problem.
"The county sometimes takes actions knowing that communities throughout the county are pressed for time and resources and that if we draft an ordinance that has some rigor and scrutiny, we hope it may have some usefulness as a model," Simitian said.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, Vice Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack took the lead on the issue earlier this month, when they submitted a colleagues memo arguing in favor of vaping restrictions. In addition to following the county's lead, the memo recommended that the city support legislation that restricts access of minors to vaping products and provides funding for education efforts on vaping.
"This is a public health issue and the city can and should be part of the solution," Cormack said during the discussion.
Recent surveys and health statistics underscored the extent of the problem. The California Student Tobacco Survey, which was released in August, indicated that 31% of the high school students surveyed in the county had tried electronic cigarettes and that 13% did so within the prior month. At the same time, health experts have been increasingly vocal in raising alarms about the health risks of vaping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 2,291 cases of lung injury associated with vaping and 48 confirmed deaths as of Dec. 3.
"The liquids in electronic cigarettes are unregulated and contain many chemicals whose safety, when heated and breathed into the lungs, has not been tested," the memo from the three council members stated. "The current outbreak of significant lung disease related to vaping is still being analyzed, but the risk of death, lung damage, and organ transplant are already known."
Council members agreed that banning sales of vaping products in the city will not do much to curtail the problem. Even with the ban, Tanaka said, most people won't have trouble buying electronic cigarettes. But he and his colleagues agreed that the new law will be "a good starting point."
About a dozen speakers, many affiliated with schools, lobbied the council to move ahead with the ban. Grace Mah, a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, cited the CDC statistics on vaping and urged the council to adopt the county ban.
Eileen Kim, a Palo Alto parent, called the chemicals in vaping products "highly addictive" and asked that the council go a step further and reinforce existing restrictions on places where people can smoke. The council had recently adopted laws that ban smoking in main commercial areas, including University and California avenues, and in apartment buildings and condominiums.
"Take enforcement actions against people who vape in public places," Kim implored the council.
Scott Anderson, a Palo Alto resident who had previously worked in the tobacco industry, supported a more cautious approach. He agreed that the council should focus on protecting the health and wellness of the community, and did not dispute that consuming nicotine through combustible tobacco is harmful. Wholesale prohibition on vaping is not the right solution, he said.
"If we have a way to deliver that nicotine to those legal adults who choose to do so, in a less harmful measure, that is something we shouldn't be stepping away from," Anderson said.
The council, however, enthusiastically endorsed the new restrictions and agreed with Kim that the city can do more when it comes to enforcement. As part of its vote, the council requested that staff provide annual updates on enforcement activities relating to tobacco products and directed staff to explore disincentives or fines for people who vape in public.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a retired nurse, called the proposed ban "easy to support." She said she astonished by how prevalent vaping is among children as young as 13 and 14 years old.
"We're not going to wipe out vaping with this one item tonight but we brought it to the attention of the public," Kniss said.