It’s a struggle for Long Beach resident Bruce McKay to finally quit smoking tobacco. The 61-year-old has been a smoker for about 50 years and then decided to switch to electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes).
At the Dec. 3 City Council meeting, McKay urged city leaders to hold off on regulating the sale and use of electronic cigarettes at least until the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made a definitive ruling that determines whether or not vapors emanating from these devices are really unsafe. He was the only person at the Tuesday meeting who defended the electronic devices that purportedly emit only vapors instead of smoke.
“I just don’t want to be restricted in where I can go in Long Beach to enjoy what I enjoy,” McKay said in an interview. He says he used to smoke more than a pack a day. McKay showed off his own electronic cigarette– a long, thin cylinder that, at first glance, does look like the real thing. He purchased it online from a company in Minnesota.
McKay doesn’t think these e-cigarettes are dangerous, particularly since the FDA hasn’t yet ruled that they are.
“I know that I’m not harming anybody around me because there’s no smoke,” McKay said. “And if there’s no smoke, there’s no tar, and science has shown that it’s the tar in tobacco smoke which makes people ill.”
However, City Health Officer Dr. Mitchell Kushner warned Tuesday that the emissions of these nicotine-delivery devices are still being studied.
“The verdict is still out on the effects of the ingredients in the vapor,” Kushner told the Council. He added that nicotine– one of the most addictive substances– does lead to heart disease and many other conditions. Kushner also presented the concern that e-cigarettes are being marketed to youth.
The City Council voted 8-0 at its Dec. 3 meeting to request the city attorney to present possible options on how to regulate them. Second District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal was not present for the vote. The Council also agreed to 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske’s request that the city attorney also review how shops that sell tobacco are currently regulated and if there are any zoning restrictions.
John Edmond, chief of staff for 6th District Councilmember Dee Andrews, acknowledged last Tuesday that e-cigarettes do offer a health benefit to those who are trying to quit regular tobacco. He stressed that the City isn’t looking to ban e-cigarettes outright.
“Of course we don’t want to prohibit it,” Edmond said, explaining that the City was looking to develop a standard for e-cigarettes based on the regulations already in place for regular tobacco. Edmond said that, currently, the city codes already restrict smoking in many public spaces and that shops must get a license with a health permit in order to sell tobacco. The Council may consider including electronic cigarettes and other vapor devices in the definition of tobacco products.
Anti-smoking advocates in the Council Chamber were happy with the Council’s direction and its preliminary steps to look at regulation.
Pete Flores serves as the co-chair of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Long Beach. The coalition works with Long Beach’s tobacco-education program. He vilified the tobacco industry and attempts to market e-cigarettes to children and teens.
“It’s a neverending, lasting battle, really, with this tobacco industry,” Flores said.
He pointed out that the City does not currently regulate these electronic devices and warned that the vapors do have dangerous chemicals in them. Edmond also cited a study in his presentation to the Council that seemed to support Flores’s claim. It listed arsenic, formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals in the vapors. Flores supported the possibility of having e-cigarettes fall under the definition of a tobacco product and urged the City to regulate e-cigarettes and tobacco products consistently.
Melinda Cotton, another board member of Flores’s coalition, expressed concern that kids are a target market for the electronic cigarettes, explaining that some of the flavors of the e-cigarettes include “lemonade” and “vanilla.”
She added that these new devices glamorize for young people the “opportunity to smoke.”
Electronic cigarettes can be purchased at stores like 7-Eleven, which sells one particular e-cigarette for about $10. Some brands of e-cigarettes are available without nicotine.
If the City does regulate smoking e-cigarettes in the same way that tobacco has been regulated, things may also change significantly in bars and restaurants. The Signal Tribune asked about seven establishments along Pine Avenue if they enforced any restrictions against electronic cigarettes in their bars or outdoor patios. Two restaurants specifically prohibit them now. The other establishments do allow them.