SAN JOSE -- They look like cigarettes and belch clouds like cigarettes.
And now, Santa Clara County may be ready to decide if they should also be fined like cigarettes when puffed in the wrong place.
On Tuesday, county supervisors will consider a resolution that would add electronic vapor inhalers to current anti-tobacco ordinances. Specifically, it would outlaw use of the gadgets at county buildings, including health-care facilities, with a 30-foot no-puff zone around doors, vents and windows. It would also prohibit use in county vehicles.
According to a staff report, more than 100 cities and counties in the United States -- more than 40 in California -- have placed such restrictions on electronic cigarettes. E-cigarettes, or personal vaporizers, are battery-operated devices that heat up a liquid, which often but doesn't always contain nicotine, into a vapor that looks like smoke and is inhaled and exhaled by the user.
Cited reasons for a ban include a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning that health risks have not been studied, and that e-cigarette vapors do contain carcinogens. Add in nicotine addiction, the potential for the electronic devices providing a gateway to traditional smoking and the dismantling of the long-held smoking-in-public taboo.
"Youth are now witnessing smoking behaviors in public spaces," reads the county report, "that have been smoke-free for most, if not all, of their (sic) life."
The proposed addendum doesn't, however, apply to some of the county's more far-reaching tobacco laws, such as bans at the fairgrounds, county parks, hotels, motels and in all multi-unit residences such as apartments and condominiums.
Supervisor Ken Yeager brought the matter to the board in December, saying the body should take action to "get ahead of the issue."
"At some point, someone in an office cubicle is going to (use an e-cigarette)," said Yeager, "and because we have no policy whatsoever, no one would know what to do. Hopefully, before that becomes an issue, we'll have some discussion of that here."
At that meeting, Supervisor Joe Simitian asked staff to return with copious information to help board members make a good decision on the issue.
"This one is going to require and deserves serious analysis and data collecting, precisely because it is an emerging topic," said Simitian, adding that "hard science" is needed to back up what he considers an initial inclination to add e-cigarettes to existing ordinances.
' A bit much'
Robert Jones, who opened Sunnyvale's Great Vape e-cigarette shop in August, said he expects the gadgets will inevitably be regulated everywhere like traditional tobacco products.
"The health ramifications aren't known now, and it's still offensive to me personally," he said. "It looks the same as smoke and it smells."
He said that while he thinks vaporizers are healthier than cigarettes, "some regulation needs to be in place, the same as cigarettes."
But Jones added that he believes some current cigarette bans are excessive, including one about smoking on sidewalks and -- in Santa Clara County -- one that outlaws smoking in one's own apartment.
"That one's a bit intrusive," said Jones. "If a person is going to work to earn money and paying their fare share to live there -- which in Silicon Valley is pretty expensive -- I think that's a bit much."
County staff is still reviewing whether e-cigarettes should be included in additional tobacco ordinances, and plans to make further recommendations in August.
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.
What: Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors discussion of e-cigarettes
When: 9 a.m. Tuesday
Where: Board of Supervisors' Chambers, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.