By Chris De Benedetti and Rebecca Parr
Staff Writers, Bay Area News Group
A growing number of East Bay cities are taking steps to restrict electronic cigarettes, and Union City has led the charge, becoming the state's first municipality to ban vapor lounges and other businesses where e-cigarettes are used.
The City Council approved the new regulation earlier this month after a Union City Youth Commission report expressed concern that e-cigarettes might lead to an increase in nicotine addiction. The commission, comprised of 16 New Haven Unified students in grades 7 to 12, also asserted that fast-growing e-cigarette products are being marketed to minors.
"The kids wanted us to regulate them because they were being sold and packaged in less expensive ways that let kids get their hands on them," Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci said. "We are trying to promote healthy lifestyles in Union City and the new ordinance helps with that."
The new law, effective Jan. 9, also bans medical marijuana dispensaries in Union City.
Other cities are following suit. Earlier this month, Richmond restricted the use of e-cigarettes in public spaces, and Hayward council members are scheduled next month to consider similar regulations.
E-cigarettes are smokeless devices, typically made of plastic or metal, that allow users to inhale nicotine vapor rather than tobacco fumes. In vapor lounges, users fill a tank with a nicotine solution that comes in different flavors and potencies, and press a button that heats the solution into vapor that customers inhale.
The Federal Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the products and has said the safety of the devices is still unknown. However, advocates tout e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
"Makers of e-cigarettes say it's a great way to quit smoking, which may or may not be true," said Joan Malloy, Union City's director of economic and community development. "The jury is still out."
E-cigarettes can still be purchased and smoked outside in Union City, but now face the same restrictions as traditional cigarettes, officials said.
"We regulate them like tobacco now," Dutra-Vernaci said. "Stores must keep them behind the counter and cannot sell to anyone younger than 18."
In Hayward, the City Council on Jan. 14 will include e-cigarettes when it considers a moratorium on any new businesses selling tobacco products. A study released by the Centers for Disease Control found that more than three-fourths of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes also smoke traditional cigarettes, according to a city staff report.
"I'd like to reduce the exposure to youth of tobacco-related products, and that includes e-cigarettes because I think they're a health hazard," said Hayward Councilman Marvin Peixoto.
Stephen Hernandez, owner of It Is Vapor 5, a Hayward vapor lounge, said the city would be "misguided" if it includes e-cigarette shops with those that sell tobacco products.
"They assume what we sell is a cigarette, and it's not," he said. "It's absolutely ridiculous. They don't know what the products are."
Earlier this month, the Richmond City Council voted to prohibit smoking e-cigarettes in any enclosed public space, even city parks and other open-air locations. However, they still can be smoked in private residences and places of employment.
The University of California included e-cigarettes in a ban on smoking of tobacco products at all of its campuses beginning Jan. 2. Cal State East Bay in Hayward does not allow e-cigarettes to be used indoors, but they are permitted outside, said spokesman Barry Zepel.
State Sen. Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, introduced legislation this year that would include e-cigarettes in restrictions against smoking cigarettes and other tobacco products. The state Senate passed the measure in May, and it is now in the Assembly Governmental Organizational Committee.
The cities of Fremont and Newark prohibit marijuana dispensaries but have no policies governing e-cigarettes. Vapor Planes, a new Fremont lounge, recently opened in the Centerville district, but officials in both cities say they are reviewing their policies on e-cigarettes.
"We have no policy because no one has approached us about opening a vapor lounge," said Terrence Grindall, Newark's community development director. "I think the city would be inclined to oppose them."