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Officials moved Tuesday toward banning the sales of flavored tobacco in unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, a move aimed at curbing the products’ use among teens.

The Board of Supervisors was unanimous in the first of two votes on the proposal, which would prohibit sales of not just e-cigarettes with liquid nicotine pods but also traditional menthol cigarettes, shisha used in hookah pipes and flavored chewing tobacco, among other products.

The plan also calls for a new licensing fee and tax for all tobacco sales businesses in the county’s unincorporated areas.

The measure would cover more than 100 communities where about 11% of the county’s population lives.

The move comes amid intense scrutiny of the vaping industry after nine deaths tied to e-cigarettes nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 530 cases of vaping-related illnesses had been reported as of last Thursday, and “hundreds more” have been reported since.

Also on Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health issued a health advisory urging people to cease all vaping until investigators isolate the illness’ cause.

The agency says statewide, 90 people with a history of vaping were hospitalized for severe breathing problems and lung damage, and two people have died.

Teenagers and young adults account for nearly half of those hospitalized in California with breathing problems from vaping, officials said.

“We are seeing something that we have not seen before,” Acting State Public Health Officer Charity Dean said in a statement.

A study of tobacco use among high schoolers in L.A. County found one in 10 used e-cigarettes last school year. And of those who did use tobacco, 83% said they used flavored products.

Credit: Los Angeles Times
Credit: Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says youth e-cigarette use is reaching “epidemic proportions,” and Gov. Gavin Newsom last week announced a $20 million vaping awareness campaign.

Earlier this year, Beverly Hills became the first U.S. city to outlaw all tobacco sales — except in hotels and three plush cigar lounges.

Since then, numerous jurisdictions have moved to prohibit sales of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco. In June, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to ban e-cigarette sales, and this month Michigan became the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

More than 300 people shared their opinion on the L.A. County measure in the public comment section of Tuesday’s meeting, many of them youth.

Lisa Liu, a senior at San Marino High School, said “flavors mask harms, and flavors lure our youth into it.”

Industry representatives said the L.A. County plan goes too far and would push people toward the black market. Jaime Rojas with the National Association of Tobacco Outlets told officials that flavor bans don’t work, and the law shouldn’t apply to products like menthol cigarettes, which have been around for nearly 100 years.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said with roughly 700 stores across the county impacted, she wants better details on how regulators would enforce the ban.

“We can’t even enforce what’s going on with the cannabis stores, so I’d like to know, going forward, how we’re going to enforce this law,” Barger said. “I want to make sure that we’re equipped to enforce anything we put into play.”

The measure passed after Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas added an amendment that would gives businesses 180 days to come into compliance.