Sonoma County supervisors to consider ban on vaping devices amid escalating national health crisis

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Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday directed the county health officials to figure out a way to ban nicotine vaporizers and flavored tobacco products rather than waiting on the federal government to act.

The board’s action Tuesday asks the Department of Health Services to bring options to the board that would prohibit devices and products that have caused a rash of mysterious lung injuries and a handful of deaths nationwide.

The move is expected to spark a fiery community conversation that Supervisor James Gore said he’s eager to have.

“The incidents reported by the CDC are scary and demand our action,” Gore said. “What action we ultimately take needs to be supported by the facts behind the incidents.”

San Francisco and Livermore have already acted to ban the sale of e-cigarettes until the FDA determines if they meet their own standard of “being appropriate for public health.” Los Angeles is considering a similar prohibition. Another 35 California communities have banned the sale of flavored tobacco products in one form or another, including Sonoma, Cloverdale and Windsor.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has for more than a month been investigating the more than 200 formally reported cases of severe acute pulmonary disease tied to vaping. The injuries and deaths come amid a steep and unprecedented rise in the use of vapes (e-cigarettes), which has impacted Sonoma County at the same rate as national and statewide trends.

A 2017-18 survey of Sonoma County 11th graders found that more than a quarter of them reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, with the same survey showing just 3.8% used traditional cigarettes in the past 30 days. In California, tobacco use among middle and high school students jumped by 36% between 2017 and 2018, according to county documents.

Sonoma County high schools report vaping is one of their top discipline issues, and vaping products are confiscated at a rate of 450 such products per month at county high schools, according to county documents.

Top public health experts have called youth vaping an “epidemic,” and the FDA recently sped up its timeline for companies to submit applications for FDA review of electronic cigarette devices to 10 months from an original deadline of 2022.

Still, companies would be able to sell their products for one year while under review.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday started the ball rolling for a potential future ban that would only be lifted pending the FDA’s review of devices.

Should the board decide to amend its rules governing tobacco retailers, staff would seek input from residents and vendors, and develop an outreach plan.

In all, work toward any ban is expected to cost about $150,000, with nearly all of that coming from state revenue streams.

The county’s action comes in the wake of a late September announcement from California health officials urging consumers to stop vaping marijuana or tobacco products until an investigation into the illness and deaths associated with vaping has taken place.

“We are seeing something that we have not seen before,” acting State Public Health Officer Charity Dean said in a statement. “There are numerous unknown factors at this time, and due to the uncertainty of the exact cause, it is our recommendation that consumers refrain from vaping until the investigation has concluded.”

A week before that, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order directing the state Department of Public Health to launch a $20 million digital and social media public awareness campaign to educate people about the risks of vaping.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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