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Santa Rosa’s plan to expand smoking restrictions riles e-cigarette users (w/video)

Mike Margossian, left, and Cody Simpson of Petaluma stopped into Digital Ciggz in Santa Rosa to try the latest liquid vaporizer on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

KEVIN MCCALLUM , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

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.

The city has already stubbed out smoking in most public settings, including office buildings, restaurants, patios, the city’s transit mall, and within 20 feet any area where smoking is prohibited.

The latest expansion would include all city buildings and properties, bus stops, outside areas such as movie lines or bank ATMs, and would eliminate an exception for parks that effectively allowed smoking where no other members of the public were nearby. The changes would also increase to 25 feet how far smokers would need to stay away from non-smoking areas.

The changes would also amend the definition of smoking to expressly include e-cigarettes and marijuana. The new definition of smoke would be “igniting, inhaling, exhaling, burning, vaping, operating, or carrying a lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe, hookah, electronic smoking device, tobacco product, or any other combustible substance including marijuana.”

But the single biggest impact would be extending the ban to the interior — and in some cases the exterior — of people’s attached homes. About 25,000 apartments, condominiums and duplexes would be impacted, representing 36 percent of total homes in the city.

The goal of the move is to decrease the impacts of secondhand smoke on nonsmoking residents, some of whom have extreme health sensitivities to tobacco.

Pamela McGhee told the council that she is allergic to tobacco smoke and lived in two different apartments that claimed to be smoke-free but which were impacted by smoke from surrounding units.

“It was an old building and the smoke just came through the attic,” McGhee said. She said she suffered mightily during those periods and in one case had to sue to prompt the landlord to fix the problem.

Unlike previous meetings on the issue, no one attended Tuesday’s meeting to argue against tobacco or marijuana being included in the ban.

Nevertheless, the notion of regulating activity inside a private home — even one attached by a wall — gave some council members pause.

Julie Combs noted that she lives in a condominium complex where people own their units.

“If I were a smoker, I would have purchased my home believing I could smoke there,” she said. “And I’m now being told that I would need to move to a detached home in order to smoke. And I have some concerns about that.”

Combs said when the public first learned about the city’s proposal, her “Facebook page lit up” with residents questioning how the ban could be extended to owner-occupied homes such as condominiums.

She also expressed reservations about the equity of a law that restricted smoking for one group of people but allowed it for another because they could afford to live in detached homes.

“Right now, poor people are penalized and rich people aren’t,” she said.

Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, as the only renter on the council, said she supported the effort.

She also suggested the law be written in a way that medicinal marijuana users could use a vaporizer, but it was unclear if that would be permitted in the resulting regulations.

“I don’t want to make it any more difficult for a patient to access the medicine that they are legally allowed to utilize,” Carlstrom said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin. mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.