E-cigarette users in Iowa City may soon find themselves lumped in with traditional tobacco smokers under new guidelines proposed by the city council.
The Iowa City Council passed its first consideration of an ordinance amendment that would ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public spaces, but not without some trepidation.
The council, which voted 6-0 with Councilor Rick Dobyns absent, heard from several opponents and area health officials before offering unanimous approval Tuesday, though the desire for more data on the effects of secondhand e-cigarette vapor had some councilors offering lukewarm support. The ordinance amendment would ban the use of e-cigarettes in any public space where smoking tobacco is not allowed under city code and state law, such as city parking ramps, bars and the Ped Mall.
Prior to the vote, the council heard from several community members including Doug Beardsley, director of the Johnson County Public Health Department, who spoke at length on the ineffectiveness of e-cigarettes when it comes to smoking cessation.
Beardsley says health professionals are seeing what they refer to as “dual use,” where smokers use both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes when it’s convenient. He says it’s rare for e-cigarette users to migrate entirely from smoking traditional tobacco, and warns that the products are encouraging former smokers to pick up the habit once again.
Speaking to the matter at hand, the potential harmful effects of e-cigarette vapor, Beardsley warned of the unknown.
“They do emit, to the user and those around them, a variety of harmful substances — VOCs, particulate matter and nicotine,” Beardsley said, though he admits these substances are found in “much lower concentrations” than what can be found in secondhand smoke. “However, given the wide variety of products, mixtures, methods and a complete lack of any manufacturing oversight, quality control or labeling … a definitive picture of what is in each of the vapors — depending on the product — will never really be known.”
As far as whether those substances are emitted at potentially harmful levels, Beardsley says that’s beside the point. “The question is, if you have the ability to have no contamination, why do you want to go back and add some contamination?” he asked.
Beardsley ended his remarks by blasting efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry.
“Really, what this is about is social norms,” he said. “If you look at the advertisements, the tobacco industry behind the promotion of these products, it’s about re-normalizing smoking behavior. That is the biggest threat to our youth, who are experimenting with these things — who will become addicted. It’s the strategy of the tobacco industry to replace those smokers.”
Beardsley’s comments struck a chord with some ordinance amendment critics, who questioned whether the city is legislating based on concern for public safety, or simply the desire to curb nicotine use.
Though he says he doesn’t use e-cigarettes, local author Joseph Dobrian spoke out against the ordinance amendment, saying it’s the “right thing to do.”
“This is a trumped up issue,” Dobrian said. “The objective is not to protect public health, I submit, but to make it harder and harder for anybody to deliver nicotine into their system. It is spiteful legislation. It is malicious legislation. It is an attempt to pick on people who are powerless. It’s fun to do that, let’s face it. It’s fun to hit somebody who can’t hit back. But ya’ll are above that I hope.”
Dobrian asked councilors not to listen to the plea that this ordinance amendment is “for the children,” and suggested they avoid passing “feel good” legislation.
“It’s not worth it folks,” he said.
Iowa City resident Michael Conroy offered similar sentiments.
“Unless an unambiguously clear and compelling case can be made that electronic cigarettes pose a demonstrable danger to anyone — a case that cannot be presently made — it is antithetical to the principles of a free society to prohibit, for no good reason, law abiding citizens from engaging in otherwise lawful behavior,” he said. “The mere fact that someone dislikes or disapproves of an activity is not sufficient cause, in and of itself, for the activity to be legally curtailed.”
Responding to Beardsley’s concerns that e-cigarettes might encourage former smokers to pick up the habit again, Conroy said, “If we are to be free, then that [includes] the freedom to be stupid.”
Michael McLaughlin, vice chair of the Johnson County Board of Public Health, says the issue is complicated because with a newer product like e-cigarettes, the science is “constantly evolving.”
“I think from a public health standpoint, there’s several dimensions that are very concerning about e-cigarettes and vaping in public,” he said. “I just think that the science is evolving, but right now, the science is pointing towards negative public effects.”
McLaughlin encouraged city officials to consider not just individual rights, but also “the rights of society.”
When the time came for council discussion, just prior to the vote, some council members were cooler on the issue.
Councilor Michelle Payne said she supports the ordinance amendment due to concerns over public health, as previously noted by health officials. Councilor Kingsley Botchway, though supportive due to health concerns, offered several caveats.
“I will say, I’m a little disappointed,” he said, apparently in reference to the arguments made by county health officials earlier in the evening. “It seems a little more, I wouldn’t say hairy now, but it doesn’t seem as clear cut as it was before.”
Councilor Susan Mims acknowledged a previous presentation offered by health officials earlier this year and says she has been doing her own research on the issue.
“I’m really convinced that there is not good science out there yet to determined that these are safe,” she said, noting that the contents of e-cigarette products vary and are, at this time, largely unregulated. Whether or not e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking is “very questionable,” she added.
Councilor Jim Throgmorton said he identifies with the individual freedom argument on behalf of the ordinance amendment’s critics, but said that given the statements offered by health officials, and the fact that residents will still have plenty of places to use e-cigarettes, he does not feel the change would constrain individual liberties and behaviors “in any meaningful way.”
Councilor Terry Dickens echoed Throgmorton, again noting that the ban would only affect certain areas.
“If we can control it a little bit, I’m for that,” Dickens said, referring to smoke in public areas (or in this case, e-cigarette vapor). “But I really worry about individual rights like [Michael Conroy] spoke of.”
“My sense is that the mood up here is a little more flat, or tepid, because we aren’t on the heels of the presentation we got a year ago,” Mayor Matt Hayek said. He noted, before bringing the ordinance amendment to a vote, that “hundreds” of communities across the country have enacted similar restrictions on e-cigarettes in public spaces.
“That says something to me,” Hayek said.