Calling it a potential health risk and a gateway to tobacco use, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday voted unanimously to regulate the sales of e-cigarettes and other "vaping" devices.
The new law puts electronic smoking devices in the same category as tobacco products, subjecting their sales to the same restrictions. It bans sales from street kiosks, ice cream trucks and self-service displays, and requires retailers to obtain a license before selling the products.
Parallel legislation under city consideration would ban the use of e-cigarettes in the same places that tobacco is prohibited, including restaurants and parks. Sales of e-cigarettes to minors are already banned under state law, and 59 California counties and cities, including Glendale and Burbank, require a license to sell e-cigarettes.
"It's important to protect young people from this deadly habit and to protect people from second-hand smoke," said Councilman Paul Koretz, who pushed the ordinance.
The battery-operated devices look like cigarettes and use heat to vaporize a liquid, some containing nicotine and fruit and candy flavorings. Users inhale the vapors and expel them, much the same as smoking tobacco.
Retail sales of the devices are expected to double this year to $1.7 billion, and e-cigarettes could outsell their tobacco counterparts within a decade, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's health director, said in a morning press conference. Use of vaping devices among high school students doubled in 2012 to 10%, according to a recent study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though studies on the health impacts of vaping have been inconclusive, some of the devices contain harmful substances such as formaldehyde, chromium and lead, Fielding said.
Council members said it was better to err on the side of caution and take action. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the devices.
"It's a very sinister approach to a very sinister product," said Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who wrote the action to regulate use of e-smoking devices. "We don't want to wait for the feds to do something."
School principals told the council that some of their students are loading e-cigarettes with marijuana cartridges and using the devices to smoke pot at school. Several speakers applauded the council's action, including Marlene Gomez of the American Lung Assn.
Gomez said manufacturers, some with ties to tobacco companies, are marketing the devices to children. "Many products are being produced that are candy-flavored or fruit-flavored, including Cap'n Crunch and Fruit Loops," she said.
No one spoke publicly in opposition to the ordinance. But the National Assn. of Tobacco Outlets submitted a letter to the council suggesting that city action was premature because the FDA is poised to issue its own regulations.
Thomas A. Briant, the association's chief legal counsel, also called into question the accuracy of the CDC survey on high school students who use e-cigarettes because he said it counted as a user anyone who had used the product even once.
Supporters of vaping say e-cigarettes can help tobacco smokers quit and are a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. Adam Phramany opened Vape Star in Koreatown three months ago and says he's helped several customers kick the habit.
"I hate smoking in general and hate second-hand smoke," he said. "But I've witnessed first hand that most of my friends who started vaping quit smoking completely."
He thinks the vaping industry takes an underserved knock when government officials equate e-cigarettes with tobacco.
"I wouldn't say it's a healthier alternative but it's a smarter alternative because there is no tobacco involved," he said.