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Visalia to consider restricting e-cigarettes

Visalia to consider restricting e-cigarettes

Councilmember Greg Collins says Visalia has a history of leading the way in progressive tobacco policy

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – At just 13 years old, Stefani Sesock has already seen the devastating effects of tobacco on friends and family. The 8th grader at Ridgeview Middle School said she lost her aunt to cigarette smoking three years ago and has seen classmates increasingly become addicted to tobacco with flavors and scents specifically targeting youth. 

“When I see peers addicted to tobacco products, it makes me sad for their health and their future,” Stefani said. “It also makes me angry they are attracted to the flavors and becoming addicted to tobacco.”

Miguel Lopez, middle school educator, said the issue of vaping among school-age youth is an important issue in Visalia where many of the behavioral problems are similar to nicotine’s effect on one’s cognitive ability, impulse control and attention span. When e-cigarettes first showed up on shelves Lopez, like many people, thought the technology was an amazing idea to ween people off traditional tobacco. He said he was shocked to learn that not only do vapes often contain a stronger hit of nicotine, they are also not heating water to create steam, but rather oil that creates a chemical cloud of often toxic combinations.

“So many different flavors,” Lopez said. “It’s obvious it’s not for adults. It’s to hide the taste and make it more attractive for [youth].”

Councilmember Greg Collins requested consideration of the item be placed on the agenda following a plea by Mt. Whitney High School students at the council’s Oct. 7 meeting. Collins said he wanted to staff to come back with an ordinance restricting and regulating e-cigarette sales and marketing, including mint and menthol flavored tobacco and vapes. He said the move would not be unprecedented as Visalia has been progressive when it comes to tobacco use policies. He recalled a meeting in 1990 when City Council decided to outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars was one of the largest crowds ever assembled on one topic in town. 

“The Council outlawed smoking in restaurants and bars and set the tone for other communities to move forward on the topic,” Collins said. “Visalia has a long history of being actively involved in health of its citizens.”

Collins pulled the item from the consent calendar for discussion just before the same group of Mt. Whitney seniors spoke again to emphasis the marketing of flavored tobacco is just as harmful as the nicotine itself. 

Jocelyn Resendiz said she and her peers at Mt. Whitney surveyed 31 stores within 1,000 feet of schools. Of the 31 stores, 26 sold tobacco products, 92% sold flavored tobacco and only two had flavord products that were not visible from the window. She said research shows that tobacco industry marketing and promotions influences youth to start tobacco use and that the use of e-cigarettes is a gateway to more traditional tobacco products.

“Flavored tobacco plays a key role in enticing new users into a lifetime of addiction,” Jocelyn said. 

Working with C.A.L.I. (Collaborate. Advocate. Lead. Inspire.) under the umbrella of the California Health Collaborative, Alexandra Acevedo suggested the city develop a tobacco retail license allowing the city to keep a record of where and how many retailers there are. She said the license fee could be used to fund law enforcement to ensure retailers are not selling to minors. She also suggested a tobacco retailer zoning which would cap the number of tobacco retailers in a given area. 

“Retailers tend to cluster in low-income neighborhoods,” Alexandra said. “The health risks of flavored tobacco are real and substantial.”

Nationwide more than 33 deaths and 1,000 illnesses have been associated with vaping. According to the California Health Collaborative, 30% of those illnesses occurred in patients under 20 years old. Celeste Hernandez said the problem is so bad at Mt. Whitney that bathrooms have been shut down because her classmates would fill them with smoke to get a contact high, known as “hot boxing.” 

One of those deaths was in Tulare County. On Sept. 16, a Tulare County resident became the first vaping associated death in the Central Valley. On Oct. 8, the Kings County Department of Public Health announced a local woman was the second vaping Visalia to consider restricting e-cigarettes related death in the Valley. Both cases are part of a recent spike in Kings, Fresno, and Tulare counties of individuals being admitted to hospitals with vape associated pulmonary illness (VAPI). 

“Last month we made the news,” said resident Kate Bourne. “This wasn’t to celebrate our community, it was to talk about someone’s death.”

Bourne said she chose to move back to her hometown after college but was tired of being the butt of jokes in the national media when it came to health. “I’m tired of this being a negative place associated with negativity. Take what these young ladies have said seriously, make their health a priority and the health of all residents a priority.”

Councilmember Phil Cox was open to the idea of putting e-cigarette regulations to a vote of the council but pointed out that many of the cases seem to be connected to vaping cannabis or CBD oils and not nicotine. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has identified 65 potential cases across the state among people with a recent history of vaping, some of whom vaped unlicensed or unregulated cannabis products, beginning in late June.

“I’d like to see staff come back with information because the majority of deaths are caused by CBD and THC, at least that’s what I’m reading,” Cox said.

Luicia Velasquez, a grassroots manager working for the American Cancer Society in the Central Valley, said 81% of young people who started using tobacco started with flavored products and 4 of 5 young people using tobacco are using a flavored tobacco product. She said banning mint and menthol flavors was important because they are attracting low-income and minority community members at a higher rate. 

“Visalia youth are really counting on you for this,” Velasquez said.

Cha See, who said he was representing Visalia’s Southeast Asian community, said many of the 3,000 Lahu living in Visalia reside in the city’s north side, where there is a high density of retailers. He identified himself as a public health researcher and said because much of the vaping industry has not been regulated, some studies have shown one vape pod may contain a nicotine level on par with an entire pack of cigarettes.  

“Tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of death that is completely preventable and is now considered an epidemic according to our US surgeon general,” Cha said. “Your community is counting on you to cultivate a local environment to help.”

Councilmember Collins motioned to place an ordinance restricting or regulating e-cigarette sales and marketing on a future agenda. The motion carried 4-1 with Councilmember Brian Poochigian voting no.

Mayor Bob Link explained to those in attendance that this vote was just the first step in the process to voting on an ordinance. He said the item will be placed on the agenda of an upcoming meeting, but likely not until December at the earliest.  

“More than 40 California cities who have passed the same protections as this,” Stefani Sesock told the council. “My friends and I deserve the same protections as youth in those cities.” 

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