IOWA CITY — Electronic cigarette use isn’t new, but cities in Iowa remain undecided about whether to restrict their use.
Iowa City Council last week voted to limit the use of e-cigarettes on city-owned and managed property and indicated interest in further restrictions.
“Basically we’re going along with what the county (public health department) recommended,” city council member Rick Dobyns said. “My basis (for this belief) is that there’s sufficient evidence that vaping can cause passive harm to people.”
“At some point cities will get a better feel for, ‘Do these have the same danger as a cigarette?,’” said Alan Kemp, Iowa League of Cities executive director. “It’s always been my impression that the reason cigarettes have been regulated and smoking in public places (prohibited) is to prevent secondhand smoke for those who don’t smoke.
“The question gets to be with these new e-cigarettes, is there a health or safety issue?”
The Food and Drug Administration defines e-cigarettes as battery-operated products that deliver liquid nicotine, flavor and other chemicals in an aerosol. The alternative nicotine products aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though the agency has expressed its intentions to set regulations.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study showed six percent of all adults nationwide had tried e-cigarettes, a number that had doubled from 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study showed 21 percent of adult smokers in particular had tried e-cigarettes, a 10 percentage point increase from 2010.
Although Iowa cities haven’t decided whether to treat e-cigarettes as traditional cigarettes, 188 cities across the country as of July had laws regulating where e-cigarettes cannot be used, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.
North Dakota, New Jersey and Utah have laws restricting e-cigarettes in smoke-free venues, and 11 states have instituted e-cigarette restrictions in certain locations such as schools or correctional facilities.
This past summer the Johnson County Board of Supervisors added alternative nicotine products and vapor products to its law prohibiting tobacco use on county property after county health officials recommended towns and school districts add e-cigarettes in their tobacco-use policies.
Johnson County Public Health Director Doug Beardsley said for him the issue came down to research that showed detectable chemicals, including metals and other volatile organic chemicals, in the vapor coupled with unknown long-term effects.
“It’s not benign water vapor that the tobacco and e-cigarette markets would have you believe,”
The emerging and unregulated industry of e-cigarettes has sparked debates on whether it is an effective for smoking cessation, the effect and influence on children and the level of harm reduction for nonsmokers compared to its tobacco-based counterpart.
Beardsley said his main focus isn’t trying to tear e-cigarettes from users’ lips.
“What we’re really looking at is the health of nonsmokers,” he said.“ We’re talking about protecting those who are the non-smokers, non-vapers. That’s what the Smokefree Air Act intended.”
That statewide act, which bans smoking in nearly all public places, restaurants and bars and enclosed spaces within places of employment, was enacted in 2008.
It’s a sentiment shared by Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
E-cigarettes lack tobacco and harmful carcinogens found in traditional cigarettes, and Glantz said they do emit less chemicals overall, but there’s no reason to pollute air that’s already been cleaned up by current smokefree laws.
“To me, that’s a no brainer,” Glantz said. “We already know they pollute the air. We know bystanders absorb nicotine and chemicals from cigarettes. That’s all you need.”
But it’s not that clear-cut for Michael Siegel, professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University’s School of Public Health. Siegel said it’s premature for cities to ban e-cigarette use.
More studies need to be done on secondhand effects, Siegel said.
“There are pollutants in the cooking fumes, there are pollutants in perfumes,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re just going to ban anything that has chemicals in them.’ You have to draw the line somewhere.”
Beardsley said he wants to talk with surrounding cities such as Coralville and North Liberty.
North Liberty council member Brian Wayson said the council would need more information and would want to make sure they would not be in conflict with state laws.
“If the state views it as a problem, then we can go from there,” said Coralville City Council member Tom Gill. “There are still a lot of questions about (e-cigarettes).”
Beardsley said if cities start to pass local laws limiting e-cigarette use it could prompt state lawmakers to act, which happened during the debate on conventional cigarettes. He said he’s worried the alternative nicotine products will roll back the clock on past health efforts.
“It’s really an attempt to renormalize smoking behavior,” he said. “It’s a direct assault on the advances we made in protecting public health.”