Hours after the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors acted unanimously to ban the sale of e-cigarettes in unincorporated county areas, the Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 5, to support a similar ban.
The county's action expands a previous ordinance passed in June that bans the sale of flavored tobacco products and prohibits pharmacies from selling tobacco products.
The Menlo Park ban, if passed, would copy the San Mateo County ordinance, prohibiting the sale of tobacco in pharmacies and smoke shops, and banning flavored tobacco products including menthol and mint-flavored tobacco products.
In addition, the council agreed to ask City Attorney Bill McClure to add wording in the city's public smoking policy to ban vaping in public places.
Both items are anticipated to come to the City Council for a first reading on Dec. 10 and a second reading the following week on Dec. 17.
Public health concerns
These actions, taken during a growing outbreak of lung injuries related to vaping, came with pronouncements emphasizing concerns about the prevalence and skyrocketing rates of young people using such devices, and the health hazards of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco.
Across the U.S., the county's ordinance states, between 2017 and 2018, usage of electronic smoking devices – also known as e-cigarettes, vapes, vape pens and e-hookahs – rose 78% among high school students, with about one in five now using them; among middle schoolers, one in 20 are using them.
In addition, usage rates among youth in San Mateo County are nearly double the statewide figures, with current e-cigarette use among high school students countywide, as reported from 2017 to 2018, at 20.8%, compared with the statewide rate of 10.9%, according to the 2018 California Student Tobacco Survey.
It also has a financial impact: Tobacco use within San Mateo County is estimated to have caused $575 million in direct health care expenses between 2006 and 2010.
In terms of health impacts, the surgeon general has stated that any use of e-cigarettes among young people is not safe. Use has been associated with increase risk of heart attack, according to the American Heart Association, as well as the possibility of irreversible lung damage and disease, according to the American Lung Association.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that as of Oct. 29, there have been 1,888 cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury reported, with 37 deaths, three of which were in California. More incidents are under investigation.
The latest findings indicate that products containing THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis, are linked to most of the cases; however, researchers have not identified the cause of such lung injuries. The only commonality in all cases is the use of e-cigarette or vaping products.
"No one compound or ingredient has emerged as the cause of these illnesses to date," the agency reports.
While state law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21, about 60% of 10th grade respondents to a 2018 survey said it was easy to get vaping devices and e-liquids. A 2018 National Youth Tobacco survey found that middle and high school students reported purchasing vaping devices from vape shops, gas stations, convenience stores, or online.
A number of parents, students, school officials and health workers told the council at the Nov. 5 meeting that they supported the sales ban. Several criticized the marketing of vape devices, along with such business' lines of pleasant and benign-sounding flavors, like mango or strawberry cheesecake, as Big Tobacco taking advantage of kids' lack of knowledge about the health impacts of vaping.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that about two-thirds of teens think their e-cigarette contains just flavoring, and notes that manufacturers don't have to report e-cigarette ingredients.
Aniya Majors, president of the Black Student Union at Sequoia High School, urged the council to approve the ban. "The tobacco companies are targeting teens into using their new products with the flavors that are appealing to teens, and new vaping data shows that it has increased and will keep increasing if we don't put a ban to it in such stores as gas stations, liquor stores, and a lot of other corner stores in the communities," she said. "I have experienced students going into the bathroom to use their vape pens and then the fire alarms (go) off."
Erik Burmeister, superintendent of the Menlo Park City School District, expressed support for the ban, emphasizing that vaping isn't just a problem in high schools – it's affecting middle and even elementary schools as well.
"This is not only a national health crisis, but it's also a local health crisis, and it's something that does ... reach beyond the high schools and into the middle schools and elementary schools," he told the council. "I believe it's a wonderful opportunity for us as a community to make a statement that the health and well-being of our students matter and we're not going to wait an entire generation for folks to realize that Big Tobacco is having a very detrimental impact on the lives of our kids."