By early next year, retailers in Morgan Hill will no longer be allowed to sell e-cigarette products or flavored tobacco after the city council voted to prohibit the products’ sale.
The five-member council voted unanimously Dec. 4 to ban the sale of the items. The ban was motivated by the growing chorus of public health experts and educators—nationwide and locally—who have increasingly sounded the alarm about the rise of e-cigarette or “vaping” devices among the youth.
The proposal to enact the ban met protests from a handful of local store owners who make a significant portion of their sales off e-cigarette devices, fluid refills and related products. The retailers worried that a prohibition would negatively impact their stores’ ability to stay open.
Federal health authorities have termed the use of vaping devices an “epidemic,” according to a city staff report. From 2017 to 2018, youth usage of vaping devices rose by 78 percent nationwide, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
At the Dec. 4 meeting, alarmed council members heard from Morgan Hill Unified School District staff and local police about the seriousness of the city’s youth vaping problem.
Morgan Hill Police School Resource Officer Sean Farrell told the council that since August, 85 district students have been disciplined for possession or use of e-cigarettes or tobacco products in the schools.
“In reality, that’s probably one-tenth of what we see on a daily basis,” Farrell said, referring to products that have been found and seized, but not connected to a specific student. He showed the council a photo of a moving box filled with e-cigarette and flavored tobacco products seized from students on Morgan Hill campuses. He added that student bathrooms are known to be “inundated” with vaping teens, and kids who don’t partake often have to go to the office to use the bathroom.
Farrell added that he and other school staff have even observed evidence of at least one instance where a student placed a vaping device in a bathroom urinal for safekeeping, and returned later to retrieve the item after the facilities were clear of adults.
E-cigarettes are designed primarily to be used with a fluid that contains nicotine and other flavors. They can also be used with THC and other marijuana products, though the sale of these products is already illegal in Morgan Hill.
“Daily e-cigarette use is associated with increased risk of irreversible cardiovascular and lung disease through the inhalation of harmful chemicals,” reads a city staff report. “Secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes are also dangerous because they contain nicotine; ultrafine particles; flavorings such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead.”
The legal age to purchase e-cigarettes and tobacco in California is 21. Underage students acquire vaping products from older family members or acquaintances, or through illicit sales marketed to the youth on social media platforms like Snapchat.
“Most students find it very easy to get e-cigarettes or cigarettes,” Don Tran of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department told the council.
Public health experts have also noted that many tobacco products are intentionally marketed to the youth, with shiny, colorful packaging that resembles candy wrappers.
Alex Aasen, principal of San Martin Gwinn Elementary school, told the council about the recent discipline of a student caught using a vaping device in the classroom. Such incidents force school staff to spend their time investigating and disciplining the student, rather than be in the classroom educating, Aasen said.
Furthermore, when a student is suspended or expelled for a vaping-related violation—as the state education code requires—that translates to a loss of revenue for the school district.
Other school officials and city staff members also noted that many vaping devices are intentionally made small enough to easily conceal, which makes it easier for students to hide them from their teachers.
The local prohibition on e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco will be fully enacted three months after the council’s Dec. 4 vote. It will affect 34 retail locations in Morgan Hill. Most of these are convenience stores or gas stations. Five of the businesses earn the majority of their income from sales of flavored tobacco or e-cigarette products. The city earns about $25,500 in sales tax revenues from these five retailers, according to city staff member Scott Nelson.
Morgan Hill joins Santa Clara County and a handful of cities in the northern part of the county in banning sales of these products. The city’s prohibition ordinance adds to existing local efforts to combat youth smoking, such as a tobacco retailers licensing program and ongoing enforcement operations.
Council member Larry Carr delivered impassioned remarks in support of the ban on sales of e-cigarette and flavored tobacco products. He praised the “multi-pronged” approach—advocated by city staff and public health experts—to crack down on youth vaping and thus reduce the risk of ongoing health problems. This approach includes more resources for anti-smoking education, smoking cessation opportunities and state laws restricting the sales of vaping devices on the internet.
“This (prohibition) won’t solve everything—we know that—but it’s going to make a significant impact,” Carr said. He added that the city should continue, and even enhance its partnership efforts with school district officials, some of whom expressed their ongoing need for help in combating youth smoking on campus.
Mayor Rich Constantine added, “I agree kids will find a way to do things they’re not supposed to do, but if we can make it harder and promise to partner with the school district to do what we can, I’m very much willing to do that.”