Smoked Out

Mike Santos blows smoke at the Vapor Lair, one of dozens of vape shops open near Santa Ana College. / DANIEL LIM


Mike Santos blows smoke at the Vapor Lair, one of dozens of vape shops open near Santa Ana College. / DANIEL LIM

By: Katie Porter and Nashe Harley

Pending restrictions on e-cigarettes may leave users with fewer places to take a drag.

Catching some shade under a tree, Jorge Varela puffs on an e-cigarette as he scribbles down notes for his next class. The translucent clouds he exhales draw curious glances from passersby. He ignores them.

“People don’t know what they are,” Varela said. “I’ve had teachers ask me if it’s a drug.”

Varela was smoking an electronic cigarette, a burgeoning fad that’s drawing negative attention from local legislators, even as they gather more information on the product.

The “e-cigs” has been marketed as a tobacco-free alternative to smoking, and contains liquid nicotine cartridges, which are heated into an inhalable vapor.

Devices could be labeled as tobacco products, subjecting them to smoking location regulations if SB 648 passes, a bill drafted by State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett. If enacted into law, the bill would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes in public schools, restaurants and bars and within 20 feet from a public building.

Since it emits vapor, lawmakers see it no differently than smoke, and believe quality of life is disrupted.

“We must always stand on the side of public health since we still do not fully understand the safety of chemicals present in e-cigarette vapor,” Corbett said.

Demand for the product has risen. Use of e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012, especially among teens, according to a study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

A spike in business inquiries and permits for the product’s sale has prompted officials to study e-cigarette’seffects on public health in order to properly regulate the way they are consumed. Some cities are attempting to regulate the devices ahead of state legislation.

“The City Attorney’s office is working closely in researching other cities, federal and state regulations to determine what is best,” said Jim Basham, director of Seal Beach community development.

The city imposed a yearlong moratorium on business licenses for new e-cig shops in August.

Santa Ana College instituted a tobacco-free policy in 2009 before the device’s popularity exploded, but the ban doesn’t include e-cigarettes. According to a representative with the office of Student Life, they may be used on campus in outdoor areas, but not in buildings. If SB 648 passes, they would be prohibited on campus grounds, except in the parking lots.

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Local business owners are creating their own policies to deal with the popular devices. Some Downtown Santa Ana restaurants have supported the idea of banning e-cigarettes in non-smoking areas.

“I don’t necessarily like it and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed,” said Megan Rathernel, an assistant manager of Juice It Up.

There are at least 21 vapor shops within a 10-mile radius of campus, according to a Google Maps search.

Vapor Inhalation Products on Fourth Street is one business that specializes in the sale of e-cigarettes and cartridges. Manager Ian Keegan claims the new bill is dismaying for an industry that has already taken away four percent of regular cigarette sales. Politics is making it hard for small business owners to fight for their use.

“We don’t have high dollar lobbyists on our side,” Keegan said, “It’s hard for our fragmented community to band together and rally against these setbacks.”

Almost 70 percent of Americans believe that electronic cigarettes are safer than traditional ones, according to research done by the American Journal of Public Health. However, studies about health risks are still developing, and medical professionals are wary of the lack of information.

“That’s something that’s going to show in medical research, and it’s going to happen, we just haven’t

seen the results yet. I think in a few months, we’re going to see something solid,” said Naguib Bewabi, a general practitioner.

For his part, Varela doesn’t see why public places, like colleges, should restrict their use.

“I’m not an ashtray anymore,” he says with a smile, as he takes a puff.

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