Seattlpi.com reported yesterday that the King County Board of Health banned the use of odorless, water vapor-emitting electronic cigarettes in all public places covered under the state smoking ban (restaurants and bars, and within 25 feet from their entrances). The smoking ban was justified as an attempt to keep us safe from second-hand smoke. Where is the second-hand anything from an e-cigarette?
"Our thinking there is that e-cigarettes end up leading to more tobacco smoke in establishments," says Board of Health member Bud Nicola, when I reached him on the phone.
This decision follows closely last week's U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that e-cigarettes may be regulated by the FDA as tobacco products, but not outright banned as a drug, like the FDA had sought. E-cigarettes generally use a nicotine cartridge and a heating element to recreate the smoking experience without producing tar or smoke. In fact, what they emit is water vapor that dissipates almost instantly.
They look like cigarettes, but they're not. There's no proof of lung damage—not to the user or the person at the next table. And the fact that there's nicotine inside is of no more consequence to the public's health (only for the user, who has a right to consume nicotine) than the food on a restaurant's menu or what a patron chooses to drink.
Asking for any evidence of the board's stated reason of e-cigarettes "leading to more tobacco smoke in establishments"—establishments where tobacco smoking is and remains illegal—led to an interesting exchange with Nicola.
Him: "At this point, these are fairly new products."
Me: "So you have no evidence that is causes more smoking inside establishments and this is just a guess?"
Him: "The evidence that we have is from the experience of our inspectors."
Me: "So all you have is anecdotal evidence?"
Nicola described this anecdotal evidence as reporting from tobacco inspectors about visiting bars where confused staffers, struggling to distinguish between e-cigarette smokers and real smokers, have accidentally allowed real smoking.
When asked about the issue of e-cigarettes "eroding social norms" cited by Seattlepi.com as the impetus behind the ban, Nicola agree, "That is certainly part of what is being thought about." It seems that the board wants to make the image of smoking cigarettes in public places an extinct or at least abnormal one. By their reasoning, allowing people to puff on e-cigs may renormalize the idea of public smoking in people's minds.
So what if officials find evidence that e-cigarettes do not lead to more second-hand smoke, would they overturn this new regulation? "We would think about it," says Nicola. So they wouldn't overturn it? "We would take another look at it."
In other words, a rule founded on anecdotal evidence without any numbers to support it is here to stay. (After all, how are they ever going to collect any evidence?)
But a court could also throw it out.
Dave Goerlitz, a spokesman for the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association (TVECA), was once the Winston man, then quit smoking cold turkey, and became a leading anti-smoking campaigner for years. Now he is convinced smokers have been thrown under the bus by an anti-smoking movement that is more concerned with winning dollars for the cessation medications produced by big pharma than actually helping people quit.
On this issue, Goerlitz tells The Stranger, "If [King County Board of Health] want to ban it, they can try, but they are going to have a fight on their hands."
I hope he is right. King County officials may think they are doing us all a favor by keeping us safe from ourselves and telling private business owners how to operate their businesses. They are not.
Fuck them and their ban.