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City council tightens vaping regulations over health concerns

on September 13, 2019

Richmond’s City Council unanimously approved a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes, including vapes, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t deemed safe. The measure, passed Tuesday night amid mounting nationwide concern over harm to health, will go into effect in 2020.

There have been six vaping-related deaths reported in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Contra Costa County has seen one suspected case of vaping-related illness, according to Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa Health Services’ health officer.

Vapes require special pre-market approval to determine whether they would harm public health, and many vapes on the market haven’t been approved. The Trump administration announced Wednesday that the FDA is developing an enforcement strategy for stopping their sale.

City council members lambasted e-cigarette companies’ efforts to paint their products as a healthier alternative to cigarettes. 

“We have a major campaign of misinformation, of mis-education,” Council Member Eduardo Martinez said.

Testimony by Juul Labs Inc.’s Chief Administrative Officer Ashley Gould at a House of Representatives hearing in July showed that the company had paid the Richmond Police Activities League (RPAL) $89,000 to use its “youth-prevention curriculum” in RPAL programs aimed at young smokers. 

“They’ve poured a lot of money into Richmond,” Mayor Butt said.

“The donations we made were part of our short-lived Education and Youth Prevention Program which was ended in September 2018 after its purpose – to educate youth on the dangers of nicotine addiction – was clearly misconstrued,” a spokesperson for Juul told Richmond Confidential by email. The company added in a statement that it is disappointed by Richmond’s ban of the  products.

Councilmember Jael Myrick initially opposed the ban. “I’m a libertarian when it comes to these things,” he said. But the marketing tactics on display in e-smoking businesses’ ads changed his mind. 

“The videos are saying, ‘Don’t support the vaping ban because vaping is a healthy alternative.’ That’s just a lie,” Myrick told Richmond Confidential by phone.

Community members highlighted the personal toll of tobacco use.

In a letter Mayor Butt read aloud to the council, Richmond resident Deb Lee said vaping paved the way for her middle school-age daughter’s nicotine habit.

“Because vaping was so much more socially acceptable (at least among her peers) she found herself smoking both more and more often,” Lee wrote. “The makers of e-cigarettes are aiming their marketing directly at our children, hoping to ensnare another generation for profit.”

Health advocates including Dr. Farnitano and Blythe Young, an advocacy director from the American Heart Association, also argued in favor of the rule ahead of the vote.

Local sellers of smoking products opposed the ban. Ashraf al-Ghazali, who works at a Richmond convenience store that sells vapes, estimated that the ban could slash the store’s revenue by between $2,000 and $10,000 per quarter.

“The main thing that brings people [to the store] is tobacco,” al-Ghazali told Richmond Confidential by phone.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the city council also appointed Willie Lee Hicks Jr., the head of the Laborers International Union of America’s (LiUNA) local chapter, to the City Planning Commission in a 4-3 vote.

Several community members objected to Hicks’s appointment, saying a partnership between a construction trade group of which LiUNA is a member and an oil industry group, the Western States Petroleum Association, links Hicks too closely to Big Oil. 

“When you start putting industry plants in our decision-making body, that’s the wrong direction for Richmond,” said Andres Soto, a Richmond resident and organizer.

Mayor Butt disagreed. “Mr. Hicks is just one person on a seven-person board.”

Vice Mayor Ben Choi, councilmember Martinez and councilmember Melvin Willis voted against Hicks’s appointment. Richmond Confidential is requesting comment from Hicks, whose term on the commission will end in June 2020.

In the public comment period during Tuesday’s session, environmentally-concerned community members also opposed the proposed Point Molate development project that would place residential and commercial structures along Richmond’s shoreline.

A few brought up a fiscal impact report conducted by a private business consulting firm Hatch & Associates on the fiscal impact of the Point Molate development. The report contends that the cost of the project exceeds the expected revenue that the city will receive. Richmond resident and environmentalist Andres Soto called for a public hearing on the report’s conclusions. Community members once again expressed their concern about the negative impact of the housing project on the city’s economy.

In May, the City Council chose a company called SunCal to develop the project. Councilmembers Melvin Willis and Eduardo Martinez opposed the choice, with five members supporting it. 

Community members also pointed out other potential drawbacks of the development, such as its encouragement of car-dependency. 

Mayor Butt called the Hatch report’s conclusions inaccurate. “You can hire anybody to write a report on anything and tell them what you want the conclusion to be and they will deliver it,” Butt said. 

Point Molate is home to about 3,000 square feet of historic buildings, and is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Seventy percent of Point Molate is allocated to open space, including the waterfront and a shoreline park.

At the meeting, Richmond’s newly-appointed Interim City Manager Steven Falk, named to the post just last month, paid tribute to Richmond’s community members. Falk said he aims to reorganize city employees with the help of the city’s management and unions to make it “the highest-performing version of itself.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly reported that a vaping injury in Contra Costa County had resulted in a death. So far, Contra Costa County has had one suspected vaping injury and no deaths, according to Contra Costa Health Services health officer Dr. Chris Farnitano.

1 Comment

  1. Karl Fischer on September 16, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    Hi! Thank you for covering this important topic. I work in the public information office at Contra Costa Health Services. I wanted to correct a detail.

    Contra Costa County has had one case reported of suspected vaping-associated pulmonary injury (VAPI), which we’ve submitted to the California Department of Public Health for investigation. But the case is not a death.

    Thanks for your attention. Again, appreciate the coverage!

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