Los Angeles officials are considering banning all e-cigarettes and vaping devices in the city, one of the most extreme proposals yet to curb a nationwide outbreak of lung illnesses linked to vaping.
Amid reports that more than 1,000 people have been diagnosed with severe lung problems, politicians across the country have been pushing restrictions on e-cigarettes, which have soared in popularity among young people in recent years.
San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban e-cigarettes earlier this year. Massachusetts also recently instated a four-month ban on e-cigarettes, while Michigan and New York have outlawed flavored e-cigarette products.
L.A.'s proposal, introduced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, would prohibit the sale of e-cigarette and vaping devices until they are deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Because the FDA has approved almost no such devices, the law would essentially ban all of them.
“The reports of illness and death caused by unregulated vaping devices is a public health crisis,” reads the motion introduced by Councilman Paul Koretz. “Los Angeles is not content to wait and do nothing as the numbers of illnesses and even deaths associated with unregulated vaping devices increases daily.”
Koretz’s proposal was referred to a council committee focused on health, which would vet the idea before deciding whether to send it to the full council for a vote. If passed, city lawyers would draft an ordinance for council approval.
The lung illnesses have so far taken 18 lives nationwide and remain somewhat of a mystery, with health officials saying they are unsure what exactly is causing them. California health officials have advised people to stop vaping until the picture becomes more clear.
The outbreak has also prompted a wave of legislation that has caused a rift among public health experts. While some believe that e-cigarette restrictions will help prevent another generation from becoming addicted to nicotine, others worry they will take away options for adults trying to quit smoking.
Opponents point out that the majority of people who have become ill due to vaping had used products with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, mostly those acquired illegally. But most new bans are targeting nicotine delivered via e-cigarettes, which some experts believe can aid smokers who want to stop using cigarettes.
“No one in Los Angeles apparently wants to look uncool by bringing up very real dangers posed by illicit THC products,” said Gregory Conley, president of the advocacy group American Vaping Assn. “But unless they want these illnesses and deaths to continue to happen, someone has to do it.”
Health experts opposed to e-cigarette bans say they will drive former smokers back to cigarettes, which remain more dangerous, or will push them to buy nicotine products on the black market.
“What bans like this are likely to do is increase the use of illicit products and decrease regulation, which ironically will expand the use of the products that are causing folks to get sick,” said Leo Beletsky, a public health professor at Northeastern University.
Some officials have compromised by banning only flavored tobacco products, which are particularly appealing to young people and linked to the surge in high school use of e-cigarettes. A 2019 national survey by the University of Michigan found that 1 in 4 of the nation’s 12th-graders have used an e-cigarette in the last month — a trend that experts say threatens to reverse decades of success in lowering tobacco use among children.
“We really did get the rates down pretty low, and then this e-cigarette thing happened and it all kind of blew up again,” said Gael O’Sullivan, an expert in health marketing at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business. “As unfortunate as these illnesses or deaths are, it’s a tipping point where it really is a public health emergency.”
Los Angeles County passed a ban last week that will outlaw flavored e-cigarettes as well as menthol cigarettes starting at the end of the month. The ban will apply to the 1 million people who live in unincorporated areas of the county.
The Trump administration has also proposed a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, and several states, including Ohio and Washington, are on their way to adopting similar laws. Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer has also recommended a flavored tobacco ban.
Dr. Jessica Sims, with the American Heart Assn. said she welcomed Koretz’s move and stressed the importance of making flavored tobacco products less accessible to youth.
“Teens are using e-cigarettes at alarming rates and studies have shown that flavors play a most critical role in youth smoking initiation and continued use,” Sims said in an email. “Citywide bans are the best way to protect young people from easy access to these deadly products.”
Catherine Dizon, project director of the Tobacco Control Evaluation Center at UC Davis, said the lung illnesses have served as a catalyst for moving forward tobacco legislation, not just around e-cigarettes.
Manhattan Beach advanced a bill last week that would ban all tobacco products in the city, including cigarettes, which would make it the second city in the nation to do so after Beverly Hills.
“It’s been an issue for us for a very long time, but it’s definitely elevated it to a national issue, to the point where our public figures are forced to respond to it,” she said.