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Crosscurrents logo 2021

To puff or not to puff: The public vape debate

photo by Nicolas Nova

This month a state Senate committee signed off on a measure regulating where e-smokers can vape, but local and public health officials have been at the center of the debate throughout California for more than a year.

The heart of the question is just how commonplace public nicotine consumption should be and how much regulation e-cigarettes should face.

Public health officials worry vaping, a process through which a liquid of nicotine and flavoring is heated into vapor and inhaled, is a new way to hook kids on nicotine.

“With flavors like Chocolate Crush and Peachy Keen, this is absolutely targeted to children,” says Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.  Santa Clara County, like San Francisco, already has a ban in place in some cities, prohibiting vaping exactly like smoking -- including in bars, restaurants and workplaces. Many cities in the county are passing similar measures.

The biggest concern, health officials said, is that allowing vaping in public normalizes nicotine use for children, making it seem acceptable – even cool.

An increasing number of teens and young adults are taking up nicotine, and the potential for addiction, through e-cigarettes, according to the California Department of Public Health. About 17 percent of high school seniors report vaping.

But to some vapers, like San Jose resident Natasha Ernst, prohibiting vaping in public may just drive more adults back to smoking.

“While I understand the desire to protect children,” she says, “it doesn’t make sense to ban something the equivalent of nicotine gum out of some hypothetical fear they may one day smoke tobacco.

The 39-year-old attorney hasn’t had a traditional cigarette since she began vaping two years ago. For Ernst, it’s the similarities between e-smoking and tobacco cigarettes that has helped her quit.  She says they feel and look the same. And unlike other devices she’s tried – including gums, lozenges and medication – it’s worked.

“Moving to something similar to a cigarette but without the carcinogenic tobacco allows me to not live in a craving situation and not need tobacco. It works great. It is the best device for quitting smoking,” Ernst says.

E-cigarettes’ effectiveness as an anti-smoking tool is why the American Vaping Association opposes regulating vaping like tobacco.

“Everyone has a family member, a loved one or a friend who has suffered from a smoking-related illness or death,” says Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association.  “And lots of times people blame nicotine for those harms. But nicotine is just what creates the dependency. Smokers smoke for the nicotine, but they die from the tar.”

But to Santa Clara County’s Health Officer Sara Cody, e-cigarettes aren’t the same as smoking cessation devices like nicotine gums or patches.

E-cigarettes aren’t regulated so there is no way to guarantee the amount of nicotine delivered. And, she warns, they aren’t as safe as people think. No one knows what’s in the juice, or liquid that is heated into vapor in the e-cigarette.

“What’s in the juice?,” asks Cody. “Who knows?”

Studies have found carcinogens along with addictive nicotine in some vaping liquids. And, nicotine on its own increases blood pressure, lowers the birth weight of babies and damages the brains of teens, on top of being highly addictive.

The state Senate bill to bar vaping statewide in places where traditional smoking is banned will be heard by a senate committee later this spring.  In the meantime, Santa Clara County health officials continue encouraging cities to take up similar measures.