Santa Rosa’s plan to expand its smoking ban to private residences is getting support from health advocates but also blowback from e-cigarette users who say the increasingly popular nicotine vaporization devices are a healthier alternative to tobacco that should be exempt from new restrictions.
More than 1,000 e-cigarette users submitted letters to the city stating they are “deeply concerned” about the council’s proposed action. The form letters, most of which were circulated by the owners of a local e-cigarette retailer Digital Ciggz, assert that the proposal is “based on zero scientific evidence, spurious, grossly-incomplete studies and manufactured fear.”
Digital Ciggz owner Michael Mullins urged the City Council on Tuesday to keep the products he sells exempt from the city’s smoking ordinance, arguing that vaping is not smoking because users don’t inhale smoke.
“No one has ever died from nicotine. People don’t get cancer from nicotine,” Mullins said. “People get cancer when they light something on fire and they inhale smoke.”
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize a liquid usually made up of propylene glycol, nicotine, and flavoring. They are growing fast in popularity, including among young people, and are often touted as a healthier alternative to smoking and a smoking-cessation aid.
But the claim that e-cigarettes are risk-free is the subject of intense scientific debate as governments grapple with how to regulate the devices. The notion e-cigarettes are harmless was disputed by Sonoma County health officials, who helped implement a similar ban in the county two years ago and who have pledged to help the city with its education and outreach efforts.
While not as toxic as tobacco smoke, there are still a host of toxins that have been found in e-cigarette aerosol, including acetic acid, acetone, isoprene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, said Terese Voge, a health program manager for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.
“There’s a lot more than water particles coming out of these cigarettes, and researchers are actively determining exactly what those are,” Voge said.,
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and the American Lung Association have all opted to err on the side of caution, issuing warnings about the devices, she said. More than 200 local jurisdictions in 40 states have already taken steps to regulate their use, she said.
The caution is partly in recognition that governments were slow to react to the smoking epidemic, and the tobacco industry made early claims about cigarettes being good for you, she said.
But Digital Ciggz manager Erick Beall said any scientifically honest discussion of the compounds in e-cigarette vapor need to take into account that the concentration levels in question are “so minute as to be barely detectable.”
Anyone who argues the devices are dangerous without discussing concentration levels “is engaging in charlatanism,” he said.
“The greatest danger in front of us today is an excessive regulatory reaction (that will) compromise the appeal of vaping to smokers and we end up with more smoking than we would have had without such regulation,” he said.
The debate came during a study session that will guide the final stages of the city’s yearlong effort to significantly revamp and expand its anti-smoking ordinances.
A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for February. If approved, the ordinance would go into effect in March with a yearlong phase in period.