The Santa Rosa City Council expressed support late Tuesday night for an expansion of anti-smoking laws that would ban smoking tobacco in attached homes but carve out limited exemptions for users of e-cigarettes and medical marijuana.
Council members generally favored the goal of reducing health impacts of secondhand tobacco smoke, but were uncomfortable with elements of the proposal that struck them as overly broad, unnecessary or not backed up by sound science.
Facing a chamber full of e-cigarette “vapers” asking their habit not be lumped in with cigarettes, several council members said they agreed the two deserved separate treatment.
“I don’t believe that vapor goes through light switches and electrical outlets,” Mayor John Sawyer said. “I just don’t think it does.”
The council didn’t pass the sweeping ordinance presented to them by staff Tuesday, but rather took several votes after 11 p.m. on changes they wanted city staff to make before returning at a later date.
One change sought by local e-cigarette retailers was to exempt their shops from the ban. The council agreed as long as the shops posted signs making it clear no customers under 18 are allowed inside.
The council had a tougher time deciding whether to extend the ban for e-cigarettes into multifamily units, deadlocking on the issue 3-3.
Councilwoman Julie Combs said she has family members who use e-cigarettes and she asks them to go outside because the vapor makes her eyes water.
“I know there’s something there that’s an irritant, so I wouldn’t want to expose other children to that,” Combs said.
Vice Mayor Chris Coursey said he’s inclined to ban use of devices in apartments, condominiums and townhouses, but couldn’t justify it based on the studies presented to the council to date.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to make a decision based on facts rather than my feelings,” Coursey said.
The council did, however, uphold the portion of the ban on e-cigarette use in public spaces. Councilman Tom Schwedhelm said he didn’t see a problem with people vaping in their own homes but didn’t think people waiting in line at the movies or at bank ATMs should be exposed to it.
The council also carved out an exemption allowing users of medical marijuana to vaporize cannabis in multifamily units. Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom advocated strongly for the provision and her colleagues agreed.
“I’m concerned that we’re running afoul of a right that has been affirmatively bestowed by the voters,” Carlstrom said.
City staff did not recommend allowing marijuana to be smoked in multifamily units, as is allowed in Sebastopol, noting they considered it contrary to state law. But they saw no such conflict with vaporizing medical cannabis.
Carlstrom asked staff if there were any studies showing that vapor from marijuana had negative health impacts.
Planner Erin Morris acknowledged it was “speculative” to assume such it would have health impacts similar to those of e-cigarettes, but said she’s not aware of any studies disproving it, either.
The proposed changes followed a lengthy meeting during which the council got an earful from electronic cigarette users and property managers over the plan, which has been in the works for over a year.
Dozens of users of e-cigarettes turned out to urge the council not to lump their nicotine delivery devices in with tobacco, arguing that there are few if any scientific studies proving health risk from e-cigarettes. Signs held up during the meeting included “We Vape and We Vote” and “We Are The Public In Public Health” and “Vaping Is Small Business, Not Big Tobacco.”