RICHMOND -- The city's tough anti-smoking laws are now set to include electronic cigarettes, which city leaders and health advocates say may be dangerous to smokers and those around them and serve as a gateway to using conventional cigarettes.
A unanimous City Council on Tuesday voted to adopt an ordinance that would prohibit smoking electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, in any enclosed public space, even open-air locations like fenced parks.
"This City Council has taken the issue of nicotine use, and kids getting addicted to it, very seriously," said Councilman Jim Rogers, one of the law's sponsors.
E-cigarettes are smokeless devices, typically made of plastic or metal, that allow users to inhale nicotine vapor rather than tobacco fumes. But health advocates are skeptical of the fast-growing products, which are not yet regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and are touted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
Several health advocates spoke during public comments Tuesday, saying they worried about what chemicals may be in e-cigarettes, their possible long-term health effects on users and their potential effect of making smoking seem more socially acceptable, especially to kids.
Although he voted in favor of the ordinance, Councilman Corky Boozé questioned the lack of definitive research, which proponents blamed on the products' relative newness, and noted that the vapors do not appear to produce any secondhand smoke.
"There is nothing coming out of the e-cigarettes," Boozé said.
The battery-powered devices heat up liquid nicotine solutions, creating a vapor that users can inhale.
E-cigarette sales surged from about 50,000 in 2008 to 3.5 million in 2012, and the number of children surveyed who reported trying the product increased from 3.3 percent in 2011 to 6.8 percent in 2012, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
In California, it's illegal to sell e-cigarettes to people younger than 18, but regulation beyond that has only taken place at the municipal level. A bill that would bar the use of e-cigarettes in public places could be heard in the state Senate next year.
At least 45 cities and counties statewide, including Contra Costa County, have already extended their anti-smoking ordinances to e-cigarettes, according to a staff report.
"Richmond is no pioneer on this one," Councilman Tom Butt said.
The new ordinance would bar smoking e-cigarettes in all enclosed places other than private residences and places of employment; all multi-unit residence common areas; unenclosed dining, recreational and service areas; and public events like festivals and farmers markets. Smokers must be at least 25 feet away from prohibited areas.
Twenty percent of all hotel rooms can permit smoking e-cigarettes.
Violations can be met with fines of up to $1,000, according to the ordinance. The council will give the ordinance a second reading early next year, and it may become law 90 days later.