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Experts Differ Over San Diego County’s Proposed Ban To Curb Youth Vaping, Illnesses

A sign for the California Smokers' Helpline and its phone number, 1-800-No-Bu...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: A sign for the California Smokers' Helpline and its phone number, 1-800-No-Butts, hangs in the lobby at the call center for the free resource, Oct. 14, 2019.

San Diego County Supervisors on Tuesday will discuss a ban on vaping products in unincorporated areas. The proposal comes amid the rise of youth vaping and a national surge of mysterious lung illnesses linked to electronic smoking devices.

San Diego County's top public health officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, endorsed the move when supervisors announced it late last month.

Supervisors Diane Jacob and Nathan Fletcher want to block the sale of flavored nicotine products that they say appeal to youth. They also want to temporarily block the sale of vaping devices while investigators work to pinpoint what's causing the vaping-related lung illnesses. The majority of the at least 1,299 people sickened with the lung disease reported using THC-containing products, which many obtained from illicit sources, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, some patients said they exclusively used nicotine products.

Reported by Tarryn Mento , Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

Shu-Hong Zhu, UC San Diego professor and director of the university’s Center for Research and Intervention in Tobacco Control, said a ban would likely reduce usage but could actually contribute to the illnesses. He said a ban would make the products more difficult to access and therefore motivate some people to quit, similar to the impact of higher taxes on cigarettes, but it could push people toward an unregulated market.

"If you outright ban it and (are) not able to actually stop people from using the product, then you increase the likelihood of people getting these products from the black market," said Zhu, principal investigator for the California Smokers’ Helpline.

The statewide helpline, which provides free phone counseling to aid smokers who want to quit, recently expanded its resources for users of electronic devices. The new services, including a texting option, are a response to youth usage and the lung disease outbreak, the helpline website said.

Zhu said pushing sales underground could lead to more illnesses because federal agencies still don't know the cause but suggested unregulated devices are part of the problem.

The Food and Drug Administration warned the public against using any devices purchased from illicit sources or "off the street," but the agency is focused on THC-containing products. This slightly differs from the CDC, which warned against vaping any substance but also emphasized the public should avoid THC-containing products and off-the-street devices of any sort. Marijuana is illegal at the federal level.

State health officials issued an alert last month that warned consumers against using the devices, regardless of what it contains or where it was purchased, "until current investigations are complete."

Dr. Wooten said the ban is important to prevent people from vaping while investigations into the illnesses are underway. At least 22 people in San Diego County are among the hundreds sickened. More than two dozen people across the U.S. have died, including in California.

"We have some bits and pieces that are coming in, but until CDC has elucidated what is actually causing these conditions, the most prudent thing to do is to ask people to stop vaping until we have more information," Wooten told KPBS Midday Edition earlier this month.

Fletcher said the ban is a starting point to address the lung illness outbreak and teen vaping.

"If you had a situation where you had all of this evidence, where this was the problem and people were not acting, there would be a rash of outcry for, 'Why are you not trying to do something to make the problem better?'" Fletcher said. "But by no means do I think what we’re doing is going to magically solve everything."

Outlawing flavored nicotine is intended to curb youth usage and the temporary ban on vaping device sales will give officials time to develop permanent regulations, Fletcher said. He and Jacob also want to boost enforcement of minimum age laws on nicotine sales and launch a campaign to warn the public about vaping’s health dangers.

Listen to this story by Tarryn Mento.

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