Visalia may restrict vape sales in 2020

Visalia City Council votes to move forward with possible ban of flavored tobacco, vaping devices in January

By Reggie Ellis

VISALIA – Too young to drink, smoke, or even vote, Alexandra Acevedo finds herself at the forefront of a debate about the future of her community. 

The Mt. Whitney High School senior is part of a group of students associated with the C.A.L.I. (Collaborate. Advocate. Lead. Inspire.) under the umbrella of the California Health Collaborative’s anti-tobacco and nicotine campaign. For the third time in two months, Alexandra walked up to the podium in the Visalia City Council chambers to present her argument for restricting the sale of flavored vape liquid. Alexandra presented new information to the council at its Nov. 18 meeting when she admitted there is not enough evidence to ban vaping flavors based on the outbreak of vaping related hospitalizations and deaths, but also said she was confident that the long-term effects of vaping were still unknown.

“Scientific uncertainty should not be used as a reason to postpone preventative measures,” Alexandra said. “Unknown long-term effects should be more than enough to end the flavored vaping debate.”

When Mayor Bob Link asked her how her classmates were able to buy products prohibited to anyone younger than 21 years old, Alexandra replied, “I don’t use it so I really don’t know.”

Councilmember Brian Poochigian said kids are clearly getting adults to buy it for them, a similar problem with traditional tobacco and alcohol products. And while Poochigian admits there is a growing concern over vaping in the national discussion, he doesn’t see how banning flavored products in one city will help solve the issue. 

Alexandra was unshaken by his argument, and instead of restating the problem provided a common sense solution. She proposed an ordinance banning the sale of flavored tobacco within 1000 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries and youth-serving organizations. She even noted that 89% of Visalia residents agreed with her, according to a survey of 114 people she and her CALI classmates conducted.

It was also the only thing the council agreed on as it voted unanimously to draft an ordinance setting a distance between vape and tobacco retailers and youth institutions. 

School district officials spoke in favor of Alexandra’s proposal as well. Frank Escobar, director of students services Visalia Unified School District, said 30% of VUSD schools are within 1000 feet of retailers selling tobacco products. He also said the school district had seen a significant rise in issues relating to vaping. Of the district’s 639 suspensions in the 2018-19 school year, the majority were for vaping at both the high school and middle school level.

“We are in the business of young people,” Escobar said. “We can’t educate them when they are not there. This is where our heat lies, hope you will consider this data and information.”

Giselle Montoya, an eighth grader at Divisadero Middle School, said she has seen several of her classmates suspended or expelled for vaping.

“I’ve seen how students come in the morning, looking sleepy, like they used it all night and they haven’t been paying attention,” she said. 

One middle school teacher’s son took the podium to say that he has seen vaping become a problem at his elementary school. 

“When my friends and I see tobacco products with yummy flavors and cartoon characters, we think it is OK for us to try them. They look safe,” said Wyatt Lopez, a third grader. “Well tobacco is addictive and can kill you. I want you to protect kids like me from seeing products near our school.”

Maria Gutierrez, who volunteers with middle school students, said she sees students using flavored tobacco products and was in favor of banning the sale of those products near places where students congregate. 

“Our duty is to steer them away from unhealthy habits,” Gutierrez said. “This is a need that needs to be addressed. Do not put business over welfare and well-being of our youth.”

Joshua French, owner of Visalia Vapes, said the idea of banning e-cigarettes is an overreaction to vaping-related deaths that have been misrepresented in the media. French said none of the 47 deaths of what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is calling e-cigarette, or vaping, associated lung injury (EVALI) have been linked to proper use of vaping devices but several were linked to products containing THC, the active psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. In fact, a recent analysis of samples taken from 29 EVALI patients in 10 states found that the one common denominator between the illnesses was the presence of vitamin E acetate, an additive, most notably used as a thickening agent in THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products.

Vitamin E is a vitamin found in many foods, including vegetable oils, cereals, meat, fruits and vegetables as well as dietary supplement and in many cosmetic products, like skin creams. It does not cause harm when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin. However, previous research suggests when vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may interfere with normal lung functioning.

“Mainstream media has picked up as a war on all vaping products,” French said. 

French said he takes his responsibility as a 21 and older shop seriously by displaying signs and complying with the Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement (STAKE) Program through the California Department of Public Health and is closely monitored by the Visalia Police Department, which received a $30,000 grant for tobacco enforcement earlier this year. He tries to hire employees who hold guard cards, certifying they can work as security guard, and said all of his adult customers like the fact that he only sells approved vaping products and does not carry any traditional tobacco products. 

 “As the first exclusive retailer of e-cigarettes [in Visalia], I chose not to retail traditional tobacco products and stay 100% vape only,” French said.

Scott Jacinto said he chose vaping as a healthier option for his nicotine habit. He said he started smoking cigarettes when he was in high school to cope with the loss of his father. It was something he and his mother did together, but said there was no way he could have smoked without her buying the cigarettes for him. 

“As long as parents aren’t buying it for you, we should be OK,” he said. “I had a ‘cool’ parent who was OK with it and there are a lot of ‘cool’ parents that are the problem.”

Matthew Davidson, owner of Vape Savvy in Visalia, said he doesn’t sell any non-flavored tobacco because it isn’t what adults want. He said the reason vaping has become so popular with adults is because it is safer than traditional tobacco and smells better making it less of a social nuisance. He understands the flavors are attractive to people of all ages but said he had a daughter who is not allowed to vape. 

“I will keep that until she is 21 years old and I will still say no, but then it’s her choice,” Davidson said.

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen said he didn’t want to hurt any existing local businesses but did want to take a stand on the issue because he was tired of waiting for the state and federal governments to take action. He said he was in favor of banning flavors, including menthol cigarettes, in an effort to take away the most attractive element to those under the age of 21.

“Flavored [nicotine] is definitely geared toward youth and I think that’s wrong,” Nelsen said. “We need to protect our youth.”

The council gave staff direction on the proposed vape rules in five separate motions. The council voted: 3-2 for staff to come back with an amendment to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products or limit them to adult-only smoke shops; 3-2 to ban the sale of vaping devices or limit them to adult-only smoke shops; 3-2 to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. Councilmembers Cox and Poochigian were the no votes on each of the rules. 

“We all know how well prohibition worked,” Cox said. “It drove that market underground and a big driver of crime and gangs. I’m not in support of a total ban. I don’t see how I can say we will ban any flavor whatsoever.”

Councilmember Brian Poochigian said he looked at vaping similar to traditional tobacco and cigarettes: Why ban a product that is already illegal for someone under 21 to possess. He said instead of punishing shops that have never been in trouble, they should be focusing their efforts on finding out how minors are getting vaping devices and cartridges. 

“To totally ban an item which is banned for minors isn’t going to solve the problem with minors vaping,” Poochigian said. 

The council also voted unanimously to set distance limits for retailers from schools, playgrounds and libraries and to redefine its definition of a minor as 21 instead of 18, for any laws regarding tobacco or nicotine products.

Interim community development director Paul Bernal said staff will draft the proposed changes to the municipal code and bring them back to the city council sometime after the first of the year. He said it will take two additional hearings to approve the ordinances, so there would be more time for additional public comments on the issue. 

“Once gathered all the information together, none of this appears to be healthy but there are problems with the way this is not being reviewed at the federal level,” Bernal said.

The only other local government to consider banning flavored vaping is the city of Tulare, but the effort failed on Nov. 5 for lack of a motion to move forward. 

The city of San Francisco banned the sale of all e-cigarettes in June despite being home to the product’s number one manufacturer Juul Labs. In response, the e-cigarette maker crafted Proposition C to overturn the ban. Voters overwhelmingly voted to uphold the ban on all vaping products with an 81% no vote on Prop C. Similar bans have been overturned in Michigan and Oregon, temporarily halted in Massachusetts and tied up in courts in Washington. A judge also overturned an emergency ordinance banning flavored vape juices in Salt Lake City.

In July, the city council in Livermore, Calif., a city of about 89,000 people located on the eastern edge of the Bay Area, voted to ban all flavored tobacco but a group of citizens challenged the ordinance. After gathering enough signatures, the city of Livermore decided to put the ban up for a vote on the March 3, 2020 ballot. Los Angeles is discussing a ban on flavored tobacco and experts expect Governor Gavin Newsom to push for a law banning all sales of flavored tobacco early next year.

Bernal said Los Angeles County is talking about a vaping and flavored tobacco ban by end of the year and said Congress has bills walking through committees for some form of restrictions. 

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