Long Beach has approved strict rules on the use of electronic cigarettes in public spaces, tougher even than the regulations just adopted by the Los Angeles City Council.
The restrictions, adopted on a 9-0 vote late Tuesday, mean that Los Angeles County's two largest cities will treat e-cigarettes in much the same way as regular cigarettes, banning their use in restaurants, bars, workplaces, city parks and beaches.
In Long Beach, e-cigarettes will be classified as tobacco products, banning their sale to those younger than 18 and subjecting vendors to inspections and potential sting operations by the city's Health Department.
Critics of the devices, which deliver a vapor for inhalation that may contain nicotine and sometimes flavors, say that they target young people and could be a gateway to increased smoking among youths.
Others, however, argue that e-cigarettes have helped people quit smoking and are a safer alternative to regular cigarettes.
For Councilman Robert Garcia, who voted against the regulations previously but changed his mind Tuesday night, the possible benefits to hard-core smokers were not enough to outweigh the possible downsides.
"My father was a smoker for many, many years, and I know it's very difficult," Garcia said Wednesday.
"What we're hearing from a lot of people in the medical community, as well as those who are studying the issue, is that there are a lot of unknowns. It makes sense for us to err on the side of public health."
Vendors of e-cigarettes have been vocal during the city's debate.
"Being able to vape in our shops, it's the blood of our business, for the consumer to be able to taste what they're going to get," said Michael Shaknovich, a Long Beach shop owner who at an earlier meeting had taken a drag off an e-cigarette while addressing the council.
Shaknovich says he checks identification for every person entering his shop to make sure they are older than 18, and only allows sampling of non-nicotine flavors. He's not opposed to regulation, he says, but feels the city's rules go too far.
"I don't think it's worth us being guinea pigs to find out," he told The Times.
But despite the urging from vaping vendors, an amendment that would have allowed customers to sample products inside shops was voted down. Council members said it would have been impossible to enforce a rule that would mean trying to differentiate between nicotine-laced fumes and non-nicotine ones.
The city's regulations go even further than those adopted in Los Angeles because they do not allow exemptions for "vaping lounges."
They do, however, allow the use of e-cigarettes in existing cigar and smoking lounges; currently, only eight such lounges are allowed to operate in the city.
Designated outdoor areas at bars and restaurants where smoking is already allowed will also be open to vaping.
Fines range from $100 for first-time violators to $500, and businesses found selling to minors could have their business licenses suspended or revoked.
"We've got to keep up with the times," said John Edmond, chief of staff to the ordinance's sponsor, Councilman Dee Andrews. "These devices are prolific … and the jury's still out on the actual health consequences to folks."