Clark County will regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco cigarettes starting in June.

Clark County will regulate e-cigarettes just as it does ones with tobacco starting June 1, 2015.

Clark County will regulate e-cigarettes just as it does ones with tobacco starting June 1, 2015.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

The Clark County Board of Health  which is made up of County Councilors David Madore, Tom Mielke and Jeanne Stewart  unanimously passed an ordinance Thursday that bans smoking the devices in public places.

The county joins a handful of others around the state in controlling the use of a product that’s still largely unregulated.

“Wherever you cannot smoke a conventional cigarette you won’t be able to use one of these inhalant devices either,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, the director of the county’s health department.

The one exception is that you can use e-cigarettes in stores that exclusively sell them.

But Melnick cautioned there’s no evidence that the devices are safe.

“It’s not a health behavior that we want to normalize in the county. Hopefully, it will have an effect,” he said. “There’s alarming increase rate on kids using these devices. I’m hoping it will help reduce that as well.”

A report released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found last year nearly 2.5 million middle and high school students used an e-cigarette. That figure more than tripled from 2013.

Clark County’s new ordinance follows similar laws in King, Pierce and Grant counties. In March, Oregon’s Multnomah County also passed an ordinance that restricts the sale and use of e-cigarettes.

Currently, the Washington legislature is weighing several e-cigarette related bills. One would increase the age to purchase a device to 19 years old. Another would mandate child-resistant packaging.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote by the county board of health, a small group gathered outside the Clark County government building in Vancouver.

They stood in a circle smoking e-cigarettes – or more precisely – “vaping.”

Dave Buckley, who says he owns several vaping shops in the state, held out his e-cigarette. It was about the size of a small flashlight.

“You’re three basic elements are going to be battery, heating element and liquid,” he said, pointing to the device.

Buckely pressed down on the bottom of the pipe and out come a sweet-smelling, puffy white cloud.

“And that’s the vapor,” he said.

Buckley said he’s all for what he calls “meaningful and purposeful” regulation.

“We don’t want youth access at all,” he said. “The flip side of that is we are all adults that are making our own personal choice. And we are making the choice to be tobacco free and stay away from traditional tobacco.”

Others at the hearing expressed similar views at Thursday’s public hearing. Some also said it helped them quit smoking cigarettes.

Steven Berry told the county’s health board that limiting where people could vape would hurt local businesses.

“It does bring in a lot of business revenue to the state of Vancouver – or state of Washington,” he said. “Bars and places that are already intended for over 18 years and older should have the right to choose.”

Washington state public health officials said they don’t know whether e-cigarettes are harmful.

Paul Davis heads up tobacco prevention, control and marijuana education for the Washington Department of Health.

He said the public health community is taking precautions.

“It seems hard to image something that’s a greater public health blemish than a cigarette,” he said. “But the risk (from an e-cig) also seems unlikely to be zero.”

The number of calls to the Washington Poison Center related to vaping liquids has spiked.

In 2010 the center received two calls. Last year, it got 182 calls. Most of them were for cases related to children between 1 and 3 years old.

“They’ve gotten into a liquid nicotine product and they’ve either swallowed it, have gotten it on their hands, or have had an ocular exposure, so they’ve gotten it in their eyes and they’ve developed symptoms of nicotine toxicity,” Alexander Garrard, the clinical managing director for the nonprofit. “That’s like nausea, vomiting diarrhea, all the way up to seizures, coma and repertory depression. So you basically stop breathing.”

Garrard said limiting where e-cigarettes can be used is forward thinking.

“These are products that we don’t know anything about and until we have more data regarding the safety of these products and what’s in them, it’s going to be best on a population perspective to limit where they can be used,” he said.

Public health officials say it could be years – even decades — before the health effects of e-cigarettes are fully known.