Scorning smokers

Tobacco crackdowns target e-cigarettes, despite their lack of secondhand dangers, raising questions about the basis of current bans

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E-cigarettes emit water vapors, not toxic secondhand smoke
SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES

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San Francisco officials are attempting to ban the public use of e-cigarettes under the same laws that restrict smoking cigarettes, which are banned in most public places purportedly because secondhand smoke endangers others. However, the alleged lack of toxic emissions from e-cigarette vapor raises questions about the basis for the crackdown.

Has the crusade against smoking in public really been about protecting the innocent, or is the moralistic motivation to try to save people from their own bad choices also driving the trend? And if so, does that undermine the legal basis for restricting an otherwise lawful product?

Since 2011, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has backed legislation to hold e-cigarettes under the same public smoking laws as traditional tobacco products. Currently, San Francisco's continually expanding smoke-free ordinance bans cigarette consumption in nearly any public place. This consists of Muni stops, festivals, parks, farmers' markets, non-smoking apartments and, unfortunately for all you nicotine-addicted bingo lovers, the obscure addition of "charity bingo games."

San Francisco has yet to pass any regulatory laws regarding e-cigarette consumption, or "vaping." But Nick Pagoulatos, a legislative aide to Sup. Eric Mar, a staunch sponsor of San Francisco's many anti-smoking policies, says a plan is in the works.

"Currently there is nothing on the books," Pagoulatos told the Bay Guardian. "But there has been discussion with the health department [which is] working something up and the Mayor's Office has been talking with them as well. The timing is unclear, but at some point it will happen."

California Senate Bill 648, approved in May and currently on its way to the California Assembly, would elevate similar e-cigarette regulations to a state level. So why are California and San Francisco pushing so hard to regulate these products?

"The suspicion is that allowing people to vape these things reinforces the culture of smoking," Pagoulatos said. "It continues in the tradition of making smoking look cool, even if it's not actual smoke."

Traditionally, San Francisco's smoking ordinances have derived from the hazards of secondhand smoke on innocent bystanders, but the regulation of e-cigarettes evokes an entirely new basis for public smoking laws.

California has an active history of anti-smoking legislation beginning in the 1990s when San Luis Obispo became the first city in the world to ban smoking in all public buildings. In 1998, the public smoking ban elevated to the state level, specifically because of the health risks posed to bar and restaurant employees by secondhand smoke. This year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to extend the already strict non-smoking laws to cover festivals and street fairs and require landlords to designate their building units as smoking or non-smoking. Now, vapers in California face a similar threat.

 

VAPING ISN'T SMOKING

E-cigarettes contain a battery operated heating device that vaporizes a combination of nicotine and a binding liquid such as propylene glycol, a substance "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA. Since nicotine is not what kills smokers, e-cigarettes have the potential to exist as a safe alternative for smokers who can feed both the physical and mental habit of smoking without the detrimental effects of tar and the plethora of other chemicals found in traditional cigarettes.

However, conflicting studies exist regarding the safety of e-cigarettes for both users and the public. While the FDA has yet to regulate e-cigarettes, a 2009 evaluation reported the finding of numerous chemicals in e-cigarette liquid, such as those found in antifreeze.

Gregory Conley, legislative director for The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, told us these reports are misleading.

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