The Statehouse drive to protect us from the vapors

Attorney general and governor are interested in regulating e-cigarettes

We scorched Big Tobacco. Now, the target is Big Vapor.

Last week, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller urged the Legislature to ban the sale of “e-cigarettes” to minors, tax them like regular cigarettes and add them to Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act, which bans smoking in public places. On Tuesday, Gov. Terry Branstad told The Gazette’s James Lynch that he’s “absolutely interested” in Miller’s push.

In case you missed the latest strides in nicotine delivery, an e-cigarette is a battery-powered device that heats liquid containing nicotine until it forms a vapor that can be inhaled. The nicotine is derived from tobacco, but there’s no tobacco in an e-cigarette. There’s no smoke, only liquid vapor, so puffing an e-cigarette is called “vaping.” Despite that unfortunate verbiage, sales are brisk. But regulations are scarce.

So who can blame these Statehouse warriors from jumping at the chance to save us from the vapors? This is the sort of low-hanging, low-risk regulatory fruit that politicians can’t resist. Miller has been criticized for shrugging at the smoke and mirrors thrown up by government to keep citizens in a haze, but nicotine mist must be cleared.

E-cigarette manufacturers bear some of the blame. Had they simply named their product “large-scale hog confinement,” “lead shot” or “campaign finance reform,” lawmakers would have very little interest in regulating it.

I know a couple of guys who bought e-cigarettes so they could quit smoking real ones. That seems like a good idea, and they say not smelling and coughing has been a big plus. But the science on e-cigarette safety is pretty sketchy. That vapor still may contain chemicals, but far fewer and in much smaller amounts than what’s found in tobacco smoke. And there’s no solid proof yet that secondhand vapor is a health threat.

So, while the research catches up, setting an age limit seems OK. Our state long ago decided that sin must be taxed, so I suppose it’s only fair to tax new ones like the classics.

But the primary reason we banned indoor smoking was to protect non-smokers, especially workers in bars and restaurants, from the dangers of secondhand smoke. Without smoke, or clear evidence of a secondhand threat, I don’t see the need to ban indoor vaping. If a business wants to be a no-vape zone, that’s OK by me.

But, for now, the case for a broader state regulatory offensive seems foggy.

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