City News Service

Los Angeles County Moves to Ban Flavored Tobacco Sales

There have been 16 serious vaping-related injuries associated with vaping devices in Los Angeles County.

What to Know

  • Over 500 illnesses and at least seven deaths related to vaping have been reported nationwide, according to federal officials.
  • The City Attorney's report includes restrictions other cities and states have enacted to curtail the sales of devices that use nicotine.
  • Officials say about two-thirds of reported vaping illness cases were in people younger than 25.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously voted its intent to approve a ban on flavored tobacco products, including menthol, despite protests by dozens of tobacco business owners and advocates who support vaping and e-cigarettes as aids to quitting smoking.

The ordinance needs to come back to the board for a second reading, as early as next week, and would take effect 30 days after that second vote.

Tobacco retailers would then have 180 days, under an amendment proposed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, to obtain new licenses required under the ordinance and to clear their shelves of flavored tobacco products.

Online sales would not be prohibited and users would not be punished under the ordinance, according to Judy Whitehurst, senior assistant county counsel.

Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board that flavored tobacco products "are driving the current vaping epidemic among youth'' and encouraging experimentation that can lead to lifelong addiction.

"Don’t believe what you hear on the news" was the message from vaping supporters Tuesday, as they held signs that read, "vaping saves lives."

They made the argument that vaping helps far more people than it hurts, including a vaping shop owner, who says vaping helped him quit smoking after 22 years.

"I tried patches, Chantex, Lozenges, gum -- nothing worked for me," Kelly Collett said. 

County health officials were making the opposite case inside the board of supervisors meeting, arguing for a ban on the tobacco flavored products, which have made vaping extremely popular.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention however says vaping has contributed to an outbreak of more than 500 vaping related illnesses and eight deaths across the country, many of them young people and youth. That fact brought kids to the vote Tuesday, worried about the peers they see vaping every day.

"I want to end the sale because I don’t want them to have a life of addiction," Katelyn Quezada said. 

But opponents of the ban say it’s up to parents to educate their children about vaping and that a ban would not only hurt ex-smokers, but put tobacco shop owners out of business.

"We are the hook for leases for our shops, then the landlords would come after our equity, after our homes. We could literally be homeless," said Elia Baida of the California Association for Responsible Retail. 

"(It's) a horrible idea to ban this," said A Kouture, founder of the International Black Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

Kouture pointed out that government didn't ban McDonald's over worries about children's health or prohibit flavored alcohol over concerns about teen drinking and warned that the ban would fuel a black market.

Many speakers asked the board to make a cultural exemption for hookah use, which they argued was also far too cumbersome to be popular among kids.

But Ferrer said that 2% of high schoolers and 4% of young adults surveyed by her department used hookahs in the prior month. She emphasized that the ordinance wouldn't ban the use of hookahs, only the use of flavors.

"What we're asking for is to ban the sale of flavors that mask the harshness of tobacco products,'' Ferrer said.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she believed that roughly 700 businesses in unincorporated areas would be affected by the ordinance and noted a lot of confusion around what the ordinance did and didn't cover. She asked staffers to develop a fact sheet for businesses.

If ultimately passed, the ordinance would require a new county business license for tobacco and e-cigarette retailers that carries an initial fee of $778 and an additional $142 fee every two years after that. Businesses would also be required to maintain a tobacco retail license -- expanded to apply to stores that only sell electronic cigarettes or vaping products -- that costs $235 per year.

The county debate came on the same day the state Department of Public Health issued a health advisory urging everyone to refrain from vaping until investigations in vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths could be completed.

To date, some 90 Californians with a history of vaping have been hospitalized for severe breathing problems and lung damage. Two of those people have died.

Though a specific cause has not yet been identified, the state agency warned that anyone inhaling a foreign substance puts themselves at risk and that vaping may lead to serious illness and death.

"Vaping is not just a concern for youth; the vaping cases under investigation affect youth and adults alike,'' Acting State Public Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean said in a statement.

Officials urged anyone with difficulty breathing after vaping to contact a doctor immediately. They also asked affected users not to discard used vaping cartridges, to allow state labs to analyze the remaining substance.

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