CITY HALL — Concerned that kids will pick up the unhealthy habit of smoking cigarettes, Councilman Bob Holbrook wants to restrict the use of the electronic version.
Holbrook will ask his colleagues on the dais Tuesday to take a closer look at bans on “vaping” in cities like Los Angeles and New York to see if there is enough research on the health impacts of electronic cigarettes to add them to Santa Monica’s comprehensive smoking restrictions, which prohibit smoking tobacco at local beaches, parks, the Third Street Promenade, restaurant patios and even inside apartments.
Holbrook’s main concern is that decades of anti-smoking efforts will go up in smoke (or vapor) if teens continue to see “vaping” in public places like restaurants or sporting events. He believes teens will be enticed to use e-cigs because they can be loaded with liquid cartridges that contain nicotine as well as flavoring like cotton candy and bubble gum. Since there’s no smoke released, kids can have an easier time hiding the habit from their parents and teachers.
“We have just worked so hard to stop smoking in public places,” Holbrook said. “This just encourages a new avenue to begin smoking, which is really not in the public’s best interest.
The battery-powered vaporizers, which deliver a form of nicotine and can mimic the feel of traditional cigarettes, are being marketed as a healthier, less difficult way to kick the tobacco habit. It’s one of the reasons why sales of e-cigs have soared from about $500 million in 2012 to an estimated $1.5 billion in 2013. That’s a fraction of the tobacco cigarette market — roughly $100 billion per year — but it reflects rapid growth in contrast to the steady decline in traditional cigarette sales.
Cities have stepped up to regulate the use of e-cigs instead of waiting for the federal government to determine if they are a health hazard or harmless. By not allowing vaping inside bars or nightclubs, e-cig users will suffer the same fate of traditional smokers. They’ll have to leave their friends and the excitement. For some, that was the reason to get a vaporizer in the first place — to not be pushed out.
A tenants’ rights group in Santa Monica is advocating for bans on their use. Santa Monicans for Non-Smoking Renters Rights, which helped pressure the City Council into enacting some of the most comprehensive smoking bans in the country, called on the Planning Commission late last month to recommend the council consider e-cigs to be as dangerous and damaging as tobacco cigarettes.
Willow Evans, a member of that group, went so far as to ask the commission to recommend creating a special category for e-cig shops, granting them permission to open only if they were located a certain distance from schools.
“The thing is, just because the smell isn’t as noxious as cigarettes, doesn’t mean it isn’t toxic to breathe first hand or second hand,” Evans said. “The information that e-cigs are safe is coming from the cigarette companies that bought the e-cig companies. And, those corporations have already been charged with racketeering for withholding evidence that cigarettes are not safe. So whom do we believe about the safety of e-cigarettes, the public health professionals, or the cigarette companies?”
Studies are being released regularly but there’s no consensus. Since the technology is new, long-term effects cannot be known.
The Food and Drug Administration intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency’s “tobacco product” authorities, which currently only apply to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco, to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of “tobacco product.”
The agency admits further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes.
Opponents point to some studies showing that those near people vaping can be exposed to nicotine and nanoparticles released in the vapor. One study showed the vapor contained metals like tin, copper and some nickel.
Supporters tout other studies, including one released recently which said they pose no danger to users or bystanders.
“What we are seeing here is not a genuine concern for public health, but a fear that e-cigarettes are going to normalize smoking,” said Julie Woesser, legislative director for Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives, an all-volunteer organization advocating for more diversity in the marketplace when it comes to e-cigs, which they say are 99 percent less hazardous than tobacco cigarettes.
“Anything we do to discourage the adult use of e-cigarettes is working against public health,” Woesser said, because e-cigs have been shown to help kick the addiction to tobacco, which has been blamed for a host of health problems, including cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown said he supports Holbrook’s request for more information.
“From my own contact with people vaping, there doesn’t seem to be the same eye and throat irritation, and since there’s no combustion there is less likelihood of tar and particulates being imposed on a bystander,” he said. “However, vapor may carry nicotine, which remains a concern.
“Our local laws on smoking have been driven by health issues,” he added. “I think we need to understand whether second-hand vapor carries the same carcinogens and has the same negative health impacts as second-hand smoke, and then weigh our legislative options accordingly.”
Councilwoman Gleam Davis is leaning toward adding e-cigs to the city’s current tobacco ban, but also would like more research.