Opinions Divided: Banning Public Vaping In Pittsburgh

Between the poles of calling for a ban on indoor e-cigarette smoking because it “normalizes” smoking behavior or fighting any ban because it’s bad for business, 15 people testified Monday at a public hearing held by the Allegheny County Board of Health.

It’s both personal and professional for Ryan Huntermark, 21, of Reserve. He said when he started smoking at 14, he didn’t realize it would become a six-year habit, threatening his health. He quit last year, using e-cigarettes as an alternative.

“Exercise became possible. I lost 100 pounds,” he told board members Lee Harrison, Ellen Stewart and Bill Youngblood, county Health Director Karen Hacker and county Councilman John Palmiere.

Mr. Huntermark said that by “vaping,” he had reduced his daily nicotine to 3 milligrams, which he described as about half of what is in a single tobacco cigarette.

The components of e-cigarettes — nicotine mixed with a liquid base, usually propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin — are heated by an electronic coil and turned to vapor. Flavorings contain other assorted chemicals. Users can regulate the amount of nicotine in the vapor.

“I vape in the car, at home and in the shop,” he said. “I didn’t quit cold turkey. It’s easier to wean yourself [with vaping].”

Bill Godshall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania, while an advocate of tobacco controls, argued that the proposed ban on e-cigarettes in public places “demonizes vaping, stigmatizes vapers.” He said in the United States, 7.4 million smokers have stopped smoking through vaping.

The proposed county law would ban the use of e-cigarettes in public spaces already outlined in the Clean Indoor Air Act. It defines a specialty e-cigarette establishment where vaping would be allowed, with restrictions on food and drink and the presence of children under 18.

A first conviction would be punishable by a fine of $30 to $300 or 10 to 30 days in jail. A second conviction increases the punishment to a fine of $500 to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to a year.

The Board of Health is expected to vote on the proposal at its November meeting.

Several vape shop proponents asked that the restrictions and punishments be made more lenient.

Michelle Hall, owner of a Castle Shannon vape shop, said, “There’s been an assault on our livelihood,” but added that most agree minors should not be encouraged to use e-cigarettes. She suggested the law be revised from banning minors in shops to keeping out unaccompanied youth, because customers may have their children with them. She asked that a nominal fine be imposed and the jail penalty be removed.

“We believe it is a person’s right to vape,” she said.

Mr. Godshall and Mr. Huntermark cited an April report from the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom that promoted the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking.

“The College of Physicians said it’s 95 percent safer than smoking,” Mr. Huntermark said.

Even with concerns about the long-term effects of exposure to e-cigarette vapors, the UK report said, “The hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the harm from smoking tobacco.”

The UK report pointed out that nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, is probably safer because it adheres to medical standards.

As the assistant manager of a Shadyside vape shop, Mr. Huntermark said he is concerned vapers might return to smoking tobacco if e-cigarettes become less convenient to use.

Brian Primack, a University of Pittsburgh professor of medicine, said he has studied e-cigarettes for a decade.

“Believe me, I want to help my patients stop smoking, but we don’t understand e-cigarette emissions yet,” he said.

Dr. Primack cited a recent study that found that teens experimenting with e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke tobacco later, even if they never intended to. He said another randomized, controlled study also demonstrated that an e-cigarette is not better than a patch to help people quit smoking.

The UK report acknowledged the concern that e-cigarettes might make the act of smoking seem normal again, after years of marginalizing the habit for the public’s benefit.

Dr. Hacker has said that concern is a priority, along with suspected harmful chemicals in flavorings.

Hazardous vapors were a concern of Brittany Huffman, project coordinator of the nonprofit Tobacco Free Allegheny. She supported the proposed regulation, citing a Harvard study from December that tested flavoring chemicals and found one health hazard in diacetyl, found detectable in 39 to 51 flavors. It’s associated with severe respiratory disease.

The potential secondhand exposure of children to harmful airborne droplets was the concern of Erika Fricke, who spoke at the hearing as health policy director for Allies for Children.

“We use a precautionary principle in children’s health,” she said. “We should protect children before that exposure.”

Ms. Fricke said it also is important to protect children from seeing smoking behavior around them.

“Nicotine is addictive. Children will see it as normal. … Kids don’t see adults smoking around them. That’s not the case with e-cigarettes.”

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