San Francisco Officials Propose Sweeping New E-Cigarette Restrictions

An e-cigarette user exhales nicotine-infused vapor. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco officials proposed legislation Tuesday to temporarily ban the sale of e-cigarettes in the city and prevent companies that make them from renting city-owned property.

Authored by City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Shamann Walton, the two bills are part of the city's ongoing effort to crack down on youth e-cigarette consumption, known as vaping.

Public health advocates say that while e-cigarettes have been cleverly marketed as a tool to quit smoking, their sleek design and varied fruit-based flavors have actually lured scores of teenagers into nicotine addiction.

“These companies may hide behind the veneer of harm reduction, but let’s be clear, their product is addiction," said Herrera. "They’re in the business of getting people addicted or keeping them addicted”

Walton has taken particular aim at Juul Labs, a major e-cigarette maker headquartered in his district in the Dogpatch neighborhood on city-owned property. The company, he said, has been predatory and irresponsible in its practices.

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"I don’t eventually want Juul to leave the city. I would like for them to have been gone yesterday," Walton said. "And we’ve been clear about that, our neighbors have been clear about that. So we definitely would like for them to conduct business somewhere else."

Vaping — inhaling and exhaling vapor produced by a battery-powered electronic cigarette, usually containing nicotine — is now the most popular method of tobacco use among teens around the country. Nearly one in four middle and high school students have tried it, according to the surgeon general.

One of the new bills would prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes that have not undergone review by the Food and Drug Administration, a measure that effectively includes all e-cigarettes currently on the market. It would block stores in San Francisco from selling them and prevent them from being purchased online and shipped to any San Francisco address.

The bill's authors emphasize that it would not be an outright ban on e-cigarettes, but rather a "prohibition" against products that "haven’t been reviewed by the FDA to confirm that they are appropriate for the protection of public health."

A second bill would prohibit the sale, manufacture and distribution of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, on any city-owned property. Although the measure wouldn't evict Juul from its current location on Pier 70, it would prevent the company from expanding and dissuade other e-cigarette makers from moving to the city.

The measures are being introduced less than a year after San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition E, banning the sale of flavored tobacco products.

In 2016, California became the second state in the country to raise the minimum age for all tobacco purchases, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to  21. The law went into effect the following year.

In response, Juul said the legislation introduced Tuesday would do little to curb youth vaping, but rather negatively affect adult smokers trying to quit. The company added that it has already taken aggressive action to crack down on underage e-cigarette use.

"This proposed legislation’s primary impact will be to limit adult smokers’ access to products that can help them switch away from combustible cigarettes," Juul said in a statement. "We encourage the City of San Francisco to severely restrict youth access but do so in a way that preserves the opportunity to eliminate combustible cigarettes. This proposed legislation begs the question — why would the City be comfortable with combustible cigarettes being on shelves when we know they kill more than 480,000 Americans per year?"

The device Juul makes looks a lot like a flash drive and has been referred to as the "iPhone of vaporizers." The Juul  first launched in 2015 and has since become the best selling e-cigarette in the country. It's also widely used among underage students, so much so that “Juul” is now commonly used as a verb.

A Juul e-cigarette. (Mylesclark96/Wikimedia)

E-cigarette makers claim that their devices offer a much safer alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes. But as many school officials struggle to control the rapid rise of vaping among their students, some fear the devices are creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.

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And although vaping devices don’t have many of the harmful ingredients found in standard tobacco cigarettes, they’re often used with pods that contain higher concentrations of nicotine. A growing body of public health research suggests that vaping may be leading more young people to start smoking cigarettes.

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