Falling in line with other jurisdictions seeking to protect the public from secondhand smoke while closing legal loopholes that have led to minimal restrictions of the increasingly popular electronic cigarettes, the San Mateo City Council opted to proceed with new prohibitions Monday night.

Between residents of multi-unit apartments who spoke of neighbor’s cigarette smoke creeping into their homes and Police Chief Susan Manheimer noting possession of e-cigarettes is the number one violation amongst middle school students, the council unanimously voted to proceed with crafting a stronger regulations.

“We’re not looking to be punitive or punish people, we’re really trying to protect the heath and welfare of our residents and we’re trying to encourage people who smoke to make healthier choices,” Councilman David Lim said.

City staff plans to return to the council Aug. 20 with a proposed ordinance that would include banning cigarette smoke in all multi-family dwellings as well as within a 30-foot to 50-foot radius and prohibit any kind of smoking — which includes marijuana — in public parks and service areas such as ATMs, bus stops as well as movie theater lines. The council also seeks to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products, which would allow them to further regulate how they’re sold and advertised.

While some members of the public sought further restriction of marijuana smoke in apartments, the city must make exceptions as medicinal use is regulated by the state, Lim said.

Karen Licavoli, chair of the San Mateo County Tobacco Education Coalition, said she was extremely pleased to see the city following in the footsteps of other jurisdictions such as Belmont, Foster City, Daly City and the county.

“We’re thrilled that the City Council of San Mateo is going to move forward with looking at this issue and we’re pleased that we have the support of the police chief. We think this will smooth the way for this process and to protect residents and property owners from exposure to secondhand smoke in our communities,” Licavoli said.

Licavoli, Manheimer and Lim all noted the importance of classifying e-cigarettes as a tobacco product to avoid a relapse in decades of smoking prohibition efforts.

“It’s a loophole that we need to close because if we don’t close it, we’re going to have 20 years of tobacco rule rollbacks. People are smoking e-cigarettes in movie theaters and bars and all these spaces that were banned,” Licavoli said. “It’s now looking like e-cigarettes are acceptable and young people are picking it up in astronomical rates.”

Lim said he’s had growing concern about local e-cigarette or vapor stores marked by bright colored advertisements, particularly those along 25th Avenue near Hillsdale High School.

Lim asked staff to look into how the city could curb the number of e-cigarette distributors, perhaps by regulating land use or through permitting such as the council recently did with payday lenders.

Manheimer said classifying e-cigarettes as tobacco products would make them subject to the state’s policies regarding restrictions intended to deter children from being exposed to advertisements.

“What’s so disturbing about it is they’re being marketed in all these bubblegum flavors and these really cool colors, it’s almost as if they’re being marketed directly to youth,” Manheimer said. “They’re not regulated now … there’s a loophole in law, which has significant regulatory constraints for sales of tobacco products. Including where and how they can be advertised, how they can be placed in stores and who may sell them.”

Manheimer and staff will likely return to council at its Aug. 20 meeting with a proposed ordinance for introduction and possibly to adopt the new rules sometime in September. The ban could go into effect 30 days after being passed, but staff will also consider whether to provide more notice or extend the effective date, according to City Attorney Shawn Mason.

How to implement the new ordinance needs to be fleshed out as police and park rangers will be responsible for enforcing the bans on public property or merchant violators, but the council is considering enabling homeowners associations or individuals with the ability to bring an injunction or civil case against violators.

As cities like Belmont and Foster City have reported a fairly good compliance rate with their smoking ordinances, Lim said he’s hopeful education concerning the new rules will help. Still, providing residents with legal remedies is important, Lim said.

“There’d be a dual layer of enforcement where the city will have the ability to enforce, but also give citizens a private course of action to bring an injunction or civil complaint,” Lim said.

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