Santa Clara County on Tuesday cracked down on "e-cigarettes" so that they now fall under the same restrictions as traditional tobacco products - in an effort mirroring what nearly 200 cities are already doing across the United States.
This new ordinance comes after a March vote to ban the use of "vapes" on county property. The expanded rules - passed unanimously - include all enclosed public spaces in unincorporated areas, such as restaurants, bars, motels and workplaces. It would also bar people puffing on e-cigarettes within 30 feet of an entrance to anyplace where smoking is banned, though people could still smoke e-cigarettes while in the comfort of their own unit if they live in a multi-unit complex. Retailers now must purchase a tobacco permit at a $425 annual cost. The rules take effect in 30 days and 60 days respectively
More than 172 cities, towns and counties including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City include e-cigarettes as products prohibited for use in smoke-free environments, according to research compiled by the Berkeley-based Americans Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation.
"I think this stronger proposal is the right thing to do," said the foundation's executive director, Cynthia Hallett. "And it's in line with what other cities across the U.S. are doing in terms of electronic cigarettes and smoke-free environments."
Three states - North Dakota, New Jersey and Utah - also ban e-cigarettes from workplaces, restaurants, bars and gambling facilities, according to the foundation's research. Only Minnesota has also added a tax to e-cigarettes, the research found.
The little metal or plastic tubes that look like cigarettes have been around in some form since 1963, but only became popular within the past decade. Now more than 250 brands have proliferated - and so are the laws surrounding the concerns over the health effects of the vapes.
The main component of e-cigarettes is a replaceable or refillable cartridge that contains a dark liquid that heats up and changes into vapor. Since ingredients in the liquid have not been regulated by the FDA, there is no telling what is exactly in them. Nicotine levels range from full flavor to ultra light much like regular cigarettes do. There are also cartridges without nicotine to give smokers the sensory experience without the nicotine high.
That's why in April, the FDA proposed rules that would call for stricter regulation of e-cigarettes. If these rules go into place after the 75-day public comment period, manufacturers would have to register their e-cigarette ingredients with the agency, health warnings would be required, vending machine sales would be prohibited and an 18-year-old age requirement would be enforced.
The move to enforce e-cigarette use is backed by organizations such as the American For Nonsmokers' Rights, Hallett wrote Santa Clara County Board President Mike Wasserman a letter (PDF) debunking what she called a myth about e-cigarettes being completely harmless. Recent research, she wrote, shows that the aerosol emitted from the e-cigarettes shows that it contains, lead, chromium, nickel and other metals. A 2013 World Health Organization report said e-cigarettes deliver less toxins, but "they still deliver some toxins."
While health advocates cheer e-cigarette crackdowns, there have been protests from coast to coast on the new regulations. E-cigarette enthusiasts say vaping is far safer than smoking cigarettes. Supporters and some researchers say they may be useful in helping people quit smoking what they call combustible cigarettes, but the research is limited.
In New York City for example, there were "Vape-In Protests" in April after the city adopted an e-cig ban. A Los Angeles club had a vapor smoke-filled party that month too, when a ban on vaporizers took place inside nightclubs, restaurants and other public places.
"It is frustrating only because customers aren't going to be happy," Richard Park, owner of the Cindy Club on Beverly Boulevard, told NBC4 at the time. "They're going to have to be vaping outside, which I think is really ridiculous, because they're considering it the same as cigarettes right now."
Frank De-Levi, who owns "Only Vapor" in San Bruno told NBC Bay Area in January that smoking vapes is the best way to quit smoking cigarettes - he knows this from personal experience.
“My brother had been smoking for 20 years. He picked one up, and he hasn’t picked up a pack since,” De-Levi said.
There was no formal correspondence sent to Santa Clara County to oppose the new rules.
NBC Bay Area's Bob Redell contributed to this report.