Worried about the health implications of young people using e-cigarettes, Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is proposing restrictions that would drastically cut down the number of local retailers who could sell the products in town.
The move is intended to make it more difficult for underage customers to buy e-cigarette products by limiting them to a pair of stores that are accessible only to adults, she said in an interview.
“We believe we are facing an epidemic right now,” Fuller said, “and I think it is in the interest of public health to limit the access to e-cigarettes.”
But the proposal has raised questions about whether it would eliminate a source of revenue for local businesses, and also potentially have an adverse impact on public health.
Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, said the city already has several rules in place that affect businesses, including a ban on plastic bags, a proposed fee for paper bags, and new recycling requirements. A restriction on e-cigarettes would be another issue businesses would have to deal with.
“I think the mayor has the best intentions, but I have concerns about the unintended consequences of adding in another regulation that makes it harder to run a business,” Reibman said.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said e-cigarettes can help former smokers stay away from smoking. Cutting access to vaping could mean more people will turn back to using traditional cigarettes, he said.
“It’s ludicrous to me that you would restrict the sale of vaping products to adult-only establishments, yet you would allow cigarettes, which are killing more than 400,000 Americans each year, to remain on the shelves,” Siegel said.
Fuller’s proposal comes just days after San Francisco, home of e-cigarette manufacturer Juul, became the first US city to ban e-cigarettes.
Critics of e-cigarettes point to the risk of developing an addiction to nicotine with use of the products. They also note that exposure can impact the developing brain, according to an advisory released by US Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
Currently, 41 stores in Newton are licensed to sell tobacco products, including 21 stores that also sell e-cigarette products, according to Fuller’s office. That group of businesses includes several local gas stations and convenience stores.
Fuller is proposing to allow only two stores — Vape Daddy’s on Watertown Street and Garden City Vape & Smoke on Lincoln Street — to carry e-cigarette products. Both stores are already licensed as adult-only tobacco retail shops.
The proposed rules would be enacted by the city’s health and human services commissioner, Deborah Youngblood, as part of Newton’s health regulations, Fuller said. The proposal would not need City Council approval to go into effect, she said.
Fuller pointed to data collected in the city’s 2018-2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which assessed the use of products like e-cigarettes. The technology works by heating liquid containing nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals.
About 15 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes and similar products in 2018, up from 4 percent in 2016, according to the report. Use of these products also grew among Newton seventh- and eighth-graders, rising to 2 percent in 2018 from .2 percent in 2016.
“We’re seeing, and this is true nationally, cigarette use has really gone down, but when vaping came along, all of a sudden, it became attractive and cool to teenagers,” Fuller said.
Taking action now will help young people lead healthy lives, she said.
“Preventing the formation of a habit of e-cigarette use in the high school, and even middle school years, is imperative,” Fuller said.
Siegel, with Boston University, is critical of the proposal, and described it as a “dream come true” for traditional cigarette manufacturers who compete with e-cigarettes. He said officials should focus on keeping tobacco out of the hands of young people.
“It sets a terrible precedent: Basically saying, we’re going to regulate products based not on how harmful they are, but based on what we subjectively think of them or what suburban wealthy kids are using,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Fuller said the city is not considering a tobacco ban. Usage of tobacco among young people has fallen, she said, and the student health report said Newton has made “considerable progress” addressing cigarette smoking.
Reibman, the chamber president, said the city should focus on enforcing rules that prevent underage people from buying e-cigarettes, similar to efforts to prevent purchases of traditional cigarettes to minors.
If officials seek to ban e-cigarettes to protect young people, those rules should come from the state, he said.
“Just banning it in Newton doesn’t mean the kids won’t have access to Juul,” Reibman said.
In Newtonville, Maria Capello, a longtime manager at Oakley Spa on Washington Street, said she opposes imposing restrictions on e-cigarette sales. Eliminating them would just mean her customers would just go elsewhere, she said.
“All you are doing is driving revenue away from us,” she said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.