Click photo to enlarge
Janine Saunders, School Health and Safety Manager for the Alameda County Office of Education, holds an e-cigarettes at the county office in Hayward, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. On February 11th the San Ramon Valley Unified School District is looking to pass a new policy that prohibits e-cigarettes and hookahs from their campuses. A number of school districts in Alameda, including Castro Valley and Berkeley, and the Santa Clara County Department of Education is also looking to update its policies on e-cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control released figures last year that found that e-cigarette use among teens doubled from 2011 to 2012 and that an estimated 1.78 million students in middle and high school had tried e-cigarettes. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

The opportunity for e-cigarette entrepreneurs to open new vapor bars and hookah lounges in Fremont and Hayward has gone up in smoke -- for now, anyway.

Both East Bay cities temporarily banned new such businesses earlier this month, while allowing existing retailers to stay open pending further study of the trendy smoking products' health effects.

Fremont's City Council added e-cigarettes to its list of prohibited smoking products on Feb. 11, Community Development Director Jeff Schwob said. It also placed a 45-day moratorium on new retailers and vapor bars, where customers use the smokeless devices.

The battery powered devices heat a small amount of nicotine -- sometimes flavored -- to create a vapor that users inhale. The method avoids cigarette byproducts such as tar and chemicals.

"People might think they're not harmful because they're not regulated," Schwob said, noting that the city will err on the side of caution. "Basically, we're treating e-cigarettes the same as we treat regular cigarettes." But are they the same? The Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule soon on that question, and some states and cities have held off enacting regulations until then.

E-cigarettes are considered less harmful than regular cigarettes. In vapor bars, users fill a tank with nicotine solutions that come in different flavors and potencies, and press a button that heats the solutions into vapor that customers inhale.


Advertisement

The vapor's health effects are unknown, leading national health experts into an ongoing debate: Are e-cigarettes a dangerous gateway habit that primes teenagers for nicotine addiction? Or does it actually help heavy smokers stop using cigarettes, which kill nearly half a million people each year?

When Fremont's ban expires in April, Schwob said, the council likely will extend it for two years, the longest permitted by state law. "It's hard to study an issue in 45 days," he said. "(The extension) would allow us time to do more research and see what other communities are doing."

Fremont has about six such businesses, city leaders said.

E-cigarettes have helped "a large number of people coming in to quit smoking," said Munvir Aulakh, co-owner of Vapor Planes, which opened in Fremont last year.

"Not only have they successfully quit smoking but their personal lives have gotten better," Aulakh said, adding that a 54-year-old customer credits his business with helping her kick her nicotine habit. Hayward has eight retailers, but it added e-cigarettes to its smoking ordinance last month when it temporarily halted all new tobacco retail stores. Before, the city had no rules specifically for e-cigarette sales, but when seven stores opened in less than a year, Hayward planners took notice. Last week, the City Council extended its moratorium, which covers new hookah and vapor lounges, until next January.

It does not affect the city's existing businesses, said Linda Ajello, a city planner.

"We expect to come back with regulations in the spring," Hayward Development Services Director David Rizk told the council. "We need time to do more research and outreach."

E-cigarette use more than doubled among middle- and high-school students from 2011 to 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, and sales last year reportedly surpassed $1 billion. The fast rise in popularity has led some cities to crack down.

Union City last month became the state's first municipality to ban vapor lounges and other businesses where e-cigarettes are used. Boston, New York City and -- closer to home -- the city of Richmond have banned smoking e-cigarettes in public places.

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011 or Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473.