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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.”

Katarina Riggs, 23, carried a sign that read “Vaping Saved My Life.”

She said she smoked since she was 14 years old and switched to vaping about a year ago when her asthma was acting up. Since then, she said her health has improved significantly and she has been able to reduce the level of nicotine in her e-cigarettes to almost nothing.

She said there have been side benefits, as well. “People are more willing to be around me now,” she said.

Making it harder for her to use a product that has helped her get healthy again makes no sense to her.

“I think it’s ridiculous because vapor is not the same as smoke,” Riggs said.

Keith Butler said he was avid chewer of tobacco products and “probably would be standing up here without a jaw” if he hadn’t quit with the help of e-cigarettes. He noted the irony of the city regulating the devices that probably saved his life while offering no restrictions on the one that endangered it.

“I can chew anywhere I want. I can spit on the ground and nobody can say anything,” Butler said.

But Sonoma County Health Officer Karen Milman painted a different picture, noting that even if e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco smoke, the vapor contains nicotine, a highly addictive substance, and contains a number of chemicals known to harm human health. She noted that because the term “vapor” is used to describe what is inhaled, people assume it is harmless, but it is not, she said.

“E-cigarettes are not emission-free,” she said, pointing to a long list of harmful chemicals and heavy metals discovered in what she called “aerosol.”

But Erick Beall, manager of local retailer Digital Ciggz, accused supporters of the ban of “cherry-picking from obscure studies that support their predetermined conclusion.”

He noted that some of the same studies identifying toxins in vapor also showed those levels were 450 times lower than that of cigarette smoke.

“The justifications of this ban are at best laughably unscientific and at worst intentionally misleading,” he said.

Just how dangerous vapor from e-cigarettes is was a question some council members said they didn’t have a clear answer to. Combs said she had no way of telling how the list of chemicals reported to be contained in e-cigarette vapor compared to the air people breathe after a car passes close by.

“Probably some of those are in my perfume,” Combs said to hearty applause.

Combs said she was leaning toward allowing the ban inside units, but was having trouble with the idea of banning the use of e-cigarettes outside.

Coursey expressed discomfort including e-cigarettes in the ban until he had more information about whether vapor traveled between housing units in a way similar to secondhand smoke.

“It would help to have something other than the belief that this behaves in the same way as smoke,” Coursey said.

City staff said the would come up with options for the council regarding e-cigarettes inside multi-family units, as well as where their use could be restricted on the property.

The council asked that landlords be give extra time to comply with the new rules, allowing them 60 days from the time of adoption by the council to comply with restrictions on smoking in common areas and in newly leased units.

They also said they would explore a “safe harbor” clause that protected landlords from prosecution if they took reasonable steps necessary to enforce the rules in their buildings, including updating leases with the new restrictions and posting signs around the property.

Councilman Gary Wysocky raised the question of whether there had been any complaints at the Bennett Valley Golf Club about smokers on the 160-acre course. Morris said she knew there had been some complaints but they were not many and usually closer to buildings like the club house.

Even so, the council agreed to keep the ban on tobacco for the course.

The full ban, which is expected to affect 25,000 units and 62,000 people in the city, would got into full effect within a year.

Petaluma is the only city in Sonoma County with a full ban on smoking in multifamily housing. Sebastopol has such a ban, but it does not cover marijuana, and Rohnert Park’s ban covers only a percentage of units. Sonoma County passed a ban for the unincorporated area in 2011.

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

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