Responding to the growing alarm over the health effects of electronic cigarettes and their rapidly increasing popularity among teens, a unanimous City Council this week directed the preparation of an ordinance to completely prohibit the sale of all vaping products in Palo Alto.
The proposed prohibition, which will return to the council for approval once drafted by the city attorney's office, would apply to minors and adults alike. If enacted, no store or business in Palo Alto would be able to lawfully sell e-cigarettes or other vaping products even though other cities and online sites make them readily available.
While this proposal is rooted in good intentions, it is an example of pure symbolism — some would say virtue signaling — rather than rational and effective problem-solving. Local elected officials need to stay in their lane and focus on supporting statewide efforts, not adopt local measures that are certain to achieve very little and create unrealistic enforcement burdens.
The proposed ban, approved in concept by a unanimous vote of the council, will be modeled after another symbolic ordinance approved last month by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors that will prohibit the sale of vaping products and flavored cigarettes starting in July 2020 in unincorporated county lands. The county ordinance will have almost no actual impact since there are few businesses located in rural, unincorporated county lands. Instead, county officials hope its law will assist cities to adopt similar measures using the county ordinance as a model, just as Palo Alto is doing.
While the exact health effects of vaping are not yet fully understood, a nationwide scare over black market vaping products that have dangerous contaminants has sparked strong warnings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations. The CDC has reported that, as of the end of November, there were more than 2,300 cases of lung injury and 48 deaths nationwide due to victims vaping nicotine and cannabis products. The Food and Drug Administration declared a year ago that teenage e-cigarette use had reached "an epidemic proportion." Local school leaders and youth-serving nonprofits have similarly sounded an alarm over the increasing amount of teen vaping, including among middle school kids.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in September directing the state Department of Public Health to launch a $20-million statewide digital and social media public awareness campaign to educate youth, young adults and parents about the health risks of vaping. He also signed a bill by state Senator Jerry Hill that will impose stricter age-verification requirements for tobacco products sold online or by mail.
Newsom is pursuing a much smarter strategy for addressing this problem than our council and other cities that are seeking to control teen behavior through piecemeal new laws. Laws already prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 18 and online sales to those under age 21.
Why do we expect youth in our community to be any more deterred from buying e-cigarettes and vaping products by prohibiting their sale to adults in Palo Alto? Those teens who wish to drink alcohol, smoke marijuana or tobacco can easily obtain it even though none can be legally sold to them. The ease of buying vaping products online, which is where many kids will turn, makes the enforcement and health risks greater due to the unreliability of the source, something that the CDC is particularly concerned about.
We do not disagree that youth vaping has overnight become a public health problem and needs increased government regulation at the state level. But the most effective answer will be a comprehensive education campaign to equip young people with the facts about the risks of consuming nicotine and the dangers of contaminated cannabis and other vaping products.
Education efforts were part of the council's direction to the city staff earlier this week, as was advocating for state legislation to further restrict access of minors to vaping products.
But passing an ordinance making the sale of vaping products to adults illegal in Palo Alto is not the way to influence teen social norms. The availability of e-cigarettes has helped many adults give up smoking tobacco and the city has no business creating an isolated prohibition for the sale to adults.
If Palo Alto leaders want to do more than feel good about taking action on a serious problem, they would consider advocating for a state ban on the possession and use of vaping products by those under 18 (or 21).
In the meantime, our efforts at the local level should be focused on education and enforcement of the existing laws prohibiting the sale to minors, not symbolic measures.