Tacoma-Pierce County health officials take hard look at electronic cigarettes
KRIS SHERMAN; Staff writer
If you fire up a battery-powered cigarette in public, are you harming yourself and others?
Or are you exercising your right to use an alternative to incendiary tobacco that might help you kick a nasty and dangerous habit?
Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials are considering a ban on electronic cigarettes in public places, and those questions are certain to be heatedly discussed in the next few weeks.
Proposed regulations unveiled Wednesday would prohibit e-smoking – or “vaping,” as users call it – anywhere the use of real cigarettes and cigars already is prohibited by state law.
That would include restaurants, bars and other public places.
The proposals also would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
Those rules already apply in King County, where a ban in public places took effect Jan. 15.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver varying amounts of nicotine. You draw on them as you would a tobacco cigarette; as you inhale, an atomizing liquid comes out as a vapor. They can be purchased in single-use or rechargeable versions, come in different sizes and colors and use a nicotine-infused liquid – or e-juice – which has flavors such as Turkish tobacco, menthol, French vanilla, caramel macchiato, peanut butter cup, cheesecake, fruit stripe and gummi bear.
Tacoma-Pierce County Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen says the proposed regulations are part of the agency’s mission “to safeguard and enhance the health of residents.”
He has concerns about the nicotine and other chemicals the e-cigarettes deliver and says “they’re targeted at young people who don’t want to smoke cigarettes but want to be able to blow smoke rings.”
Health officials also say they’re concerned about the possibility of second-hand vapor effects.
“Nicotine is a nerve poison,” Chen said.
E-cigarette retailer Kim Thompson argues vaping is a harmless way to step down from smoking and that the chemicals contained in the e-juice are found in common products and foods.
“I smoked for 20-plus years, and I tried everything but Chantix,” she said. When she found an e-cigarette that helped her quit, she took the money she saved from buying tobacco products and used it to help open The Vaporium in Lakewood.
“I think the all-out banning of this product in places where adults frequent is invasive, unjust and very Big Brother,” the 41-year-old Thompson said.
She thinks businesses should make the call whether to allow it in bars, restaurants and other public spaces.
There’s been a tussle over the nicotine-delivery devices since their introduction a few years ago. The federal Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about them in 2009, saying laboratory analysis of samples showed they contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient found in antifreeze.
But they’ve yet to be regulated by that agency, which lost a court case on the issue.
The Tacoma Pierce-County Board of Health – already somewhat divided – is to consider enacting the local regulations June 1.
Health board chairman Dick Muri and vice chairman Stan Flemming, both Pierce County Council members, agree e-cigarettes shouldn’t be sold to minors, but they take issue with a complete ban on their use in public spaces.
“These aren’t cigarettes,” Muri said. “You’re trying to manage behavior, and that’s not our job.”
Flemming, a physician, said there simply isn’t enough information to rule one way or the other on them.
“I’ve asked what else is in these e-cigarettes that’s a potential health risk, and they said, ‘Well, it has the potential to emit harmful particles into the air.’
“What we’re trying to do is make public policy on anecdotal information,” Flemming added. “That’s not good legislation.”
Fellow board member Pat McCarthy, the Pierce County executive, disagrees.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck,” she said. “To me they look like cigarettes.”
The Health Department has been working for years to eradicate smoking in Pierce County, she added.
“This goes in the opposite direction. We shouldn’t be supporting something that simulates smoking.”
Thompson argues that no one would buy e-cigarettes if they weren’t genuinely trying to quit tobacco. They range in price from about $15 for a disposable, 25-cigarette equivalent, to $130 or so for a complete kit with rechargeable batteries and atomizers.
“I’ve never met a nonsmoker who wanted to start vaping,” she said.
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659