The Long Beach City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last week, on March 4, that will regulate e-cigarettes in the same manner as tobacco cigarettes. Signed by Mayor Bob Foster this week, the ordinance will take effect in about one month.
The ordinance will make a number of changes to the way e-cigarettes will be regulated. One of the noticeable modifications to the rules will prohibit smoking e-cigarettes or “vaping” in the same areas already off-limits to tobacco-cigarette use. Long Beach’s list of prohibited areas to smokers includes city beaches, parks, movie theaters, bars, night clubs, restaurants and retail establishments.
Dr. Mitchell Kushner serves as the city health officer for Long Beach’s Department of Health and Human Services. He said that the Environmental Health Division will be contacting the owners of e-cigarette shops to educate them and explain the new regulations. Kushner said there may be further visits, warnings or fines for those store owners who don’t comply with the new rules.
Owners of local e-cigarette shops still hope that city officials will consider amending the ordinance to allow customers to use their vaping devices in their stores. Shop owners like Alan Schroeder of Vapin USA say that the ability for customers to sample their products is essential to their business because there are scores of possible flavors for sale and different manufacturers offering their own proprietary blends.
Michael Shaknovich, owner of E-Cig City, agrees with Schroeder. Shaknovich has appeared before the Council during their meetings to advocate for change.
“Our fears are that…our sales are going to go down,” Shaknovich said in a telephone interview on Monday with the Signal Tribune.
Last Tuesday morning, at his shop on Third Street in downtown Long Beach, Shaknovich looked over a vaping device owned by customer Maya Cornelius to make sure everything is working correctly.
Just a few feet away from her, a couple of men sat at stools at the store’s glass counter. They freely puffed away on their vaping devices, sampling a few flavors before they ultimately made a purchase.
Cornelius, a 44-year-old Long Beach resident, said she has finally been able to quit tobacco cigarettes after smoking for 20 years. She started using an e-cigarette last December. Her favorite flavor is a mix of cherries and French vanilla with a drop of menthol. Cornelius said she started vaping with a flavor that contained six-percent nicotine, but these days, she doesn’t need to have any nicotine in her e-cigarette.
“It’s fun to smoke, and it’s healthy,” Cornelius said of the e-cigarettes. In an interview with the Signal Tribune, she described how she is no longer sleepy or sluggish.
When asked if she feared whether children are being exposed to e-cigarettes, Cornelius said she worried about kids under the age of 18 who might try anything addictive.
“To me, it’s a hobby,” she said of vaping, “but I could see for those [who] are really heavy [smokers], it could be a substitute and become addicting. So I wouldn’t wish that on any child going into the future.”
Store owners and other advocates of e-cigarettes have said that the vaping devices have been the best tool to help customers like Cornelius quit tobacco cigarettes.
City Health Officer Kushner acknowledged store owners’ intentions to help users overcome an addiction to cigarettes, but he said that there is still no information on the true ability of these devices to help with that purpose.
“It really hasn’t [yet] proven to be an effective cessation strategy for people that smoke cigarettes,” Kushner said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He underscored another problem– that an increasing number of kids are using e-cigarettes. He cited reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the 2011 and 2012 National Tobacco Youth Survey that concluded that usage of e-cigarettes has doubled among middle- and high-school students.
“And if the youth are ingesting or inhaling a nicotine product because it is so addicting, how do we know it’s not going to be a gateway to cigarette smoking?” Kushner asked. “ And that’s very problematic that there have been no controls.”
Even before this ordinance takes effect, kids in the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) already risk steep penalties if they are caught with a vaping device on campus. Chris Eftychiou, a spokesperson for the district, said that the board policy has been updated to include a prohibition against e-cigarettes. He added that school-safety officers may cite students for possessing these devices. According to the guidelines available from the school district, students may face suspension or intervention transfer or may be recommended for expulsion if they possess or use tobacco/nicotine products on school property.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet made a definitive ruling on whether e-cigarettes are safe or dangerous.
“The devices have not yet been fully studied,” a release on the FDA website stated, “so consumers currently don’t know the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products.”
Kenneth Turney, owner of Vapor Underground, is convinced that the vaping devices don’t pose any health risk. He criticized the Council’s decision to move forward with the ordinance.
In a telephone interview, he did, however, acknowledge that there are certain places where e-cigarettes shouldn’t be used, especially if it becomes a nuisance.
“I don’t truly believe in smoking in restaurants because it is distracting,” Turney said. “I definitely don’t believe in smoking in movie theaters because it is visually distracting. You know, but that’s common sense.”
When asked about his policy towards youth who hope to buy e-cigarettes, Turney said he’s personally thrown out kids who didn’t look old enough to buy cigarettes and couldn’t produce identification. A father of a 14-year-old boy, he said that he would not object to his son having an e-cigarette, but he does take a stand against his son trying nicotine because that substance is very addictive. Turney said he used to smoke up to two packs of regular cigarettes per day.
Turney, Shaknovich and Schroeder all said that they do ask for proof of identification in their stores, especially if a customer looks young.
Sixth District Councilmember Dee Andrews sponsored the ordinance. Andrews’s chief of staff, John Edmond, described how, under the new ordinance, store owners would not simply be trusted to voluntarily ensure that youth would not buy their products.
“Although the operators said, ‘We’re not going to sell to minors,’ there was nothing on the books that prevented them from doing it, quite frankly,” Edmond said in a telephone interview.
He also criticized e-cigarette advocates who insist that vaping devices are safe.
“There’s this sort of bullish optimism that this is… not harmful to anybody,” Edmond said, as he described how all of the arguments in favor of e-cigarettes sound exactly like the arguments that were made to promote tobacco cigarettes in the 1950s.
“So I really hope that this helps people get off nicotine,” he concluded, “but what I’m seeing is more people being addicted to nicotine, people who may have never considered smoking a cigarette ever being exposed to this… unfortunately, I think what the trend will be is that you’ll have more people starting this than stopping it in terms of addiction to nicotine.”
Shaknovich said that he and other store owners are circulating a petition in favor of a change in the ordinance to allow sampling. However, other business owners are mulling over other alternatives to fight the new regulations. Turney said that he is considering the possibility of filing a class-action lawsuit and has already consulted with an attorney. He has also thought about closing his shop to the public and serving customers by appointment only.
Edmond said that there is always the possibility that in the future, another city councilmember could advocate for a change in the ordinance that could accommodate e-cigarette lounges similar to cigar lounges so that users could freely sample their vapor flavors. He said no one has discussed a petition with Andrews’s office.