Juneau regulates electronic cigarettes

Juneau EmpireJuly 12, 2014 

— Juneau resident Todd Mace picked up electronic cigarette use about a year ago as a healthier option while he tried to kick a decade-long cigarette habit. Being able to take a couple puffs of his e-cigarette inside the bars kept him out of the lineup of smokers outside downtown bars — and away from temptation, he said.

But now Mace, along with Juneau's other e-cigarette smokers, must follow the same rules imposed on tobacco smokers — no smoking in bars, restaurants, bus stop shelters, city buildings and other public places.

The ordinance amending the city's pre-existing secondhand smoke control code to include e-cigarettes was adopted at a June 30 Assembly meeting. It puts into writing what some city institutions — including the Juneau School District and the Zach Gordon Youth Center — had already decided to do: put restrictions on a relatively new product that hasn't been addressed through legislation.

Robert Barr, director of the downtown library, was integral in getting something on e-cigarettes in the Juneau books. He said that since e-cigarettes became popular, he has had about six instances in which library patrons either asked if they could use an e-cigarette inside or just took one out and started puffing.

With e-cigarettes left out of the city's secondhand smoke control code, library staff couldn't legally say no, Barr said, and they couldn't do anything when other patrons complained about the vapor.

"We couldn't really address those complaints people were having," he said. "I asked the city attorney if that was something that fell under the city secondhand smoking code. It didn't seem appropriate to be using e-cigarettes in the libraries considering that the health effects seemed to be pretty real. We went forward from there."

He worked with city attorney Amy Mead for about two months until the ordinance was adopted, he said.

There are many opinions on the health effects of e-cigarettes, which are filled with a liquid combination of propylene glycol, water, flavoring, nicotine, and other chemicals that is then heated, vaporized and inhaled.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not yet regulating the contents of e-cigarettes. The administration is currently taking public comment on the issue, however.

Barr pointed out that in October of last year, 41 of 50 states' attorneys general — including Alaska's — signed a letter to the FDA entreating it to begin regulating e-cigarettes.

"They're marketed as being safe products that can be used in public unlike tobacco," he said. "That's unfortunately not true."

Bob Urata, a physician with Valley Medical Care, spoke in favor of the ordinance during the public comment period at the June 30 Assembly meeting, according to meeting minutes. He called e-cigarettes "the new battle" now that lung cancer prevalence in Alaska is dropping. Urata said that although the FDA is still researching it, the aerosol inhaled and exhaled from e-cigarettes is "not benign" even if it isn't smoke, and contains toxins and carcinogens. If a product includes nicotine and is exhaled, it doesn't belong in a public building, he said.

Mace said he knows that e-cigarettes aren't healthy, but he feels so much better than he did when he was smoking a pack a day. He started using an e-cigarette about a year ago, and, a few months ago, stopped smoking cigarettes entirely.

"The last four months I stopped buying them, I stopped bumming them from friends," he said. "An alternative to help me quit smoking is why I bought (an e-cigarette)."

He said he's read article after article about the effects of e-cigarette use. It's hard to say what's fact and what isn't, but, regardless, he doesn't plan to be a lifetime user.

"Ultimately, I do want to quit smoking electronic cigarettes as well," he said.

Mace said he's disappointed he'll no longer be able to smoke inside at bars. That's the only public, indoor place he'd ever used it because "there's a certain etiquette " to e-cigarette use, he said.

"I don't walk around at Fred Meyer using it," he said. "I saw a guy in Wells Fargo setting up a new account, ... puffing away. Don't be disrespectful — don't be in the movie theater, don't be in the store."

Mace's smoking habit started years ago while drinking with friends at bars, and the temptation is still very real, he said. Keeping his distance from other smokers has helped him stay cigarette-free.

The appeal of the e-cigarette is "I don't have to be outside, I don't have to be around it, the temptation's not there," he said. "But what I'm going to do is just go outside and have my electronic cigarette."

Barr said he's pleased the ordinance passed, and library patrons will be, too. There isn't enough e-cigarette use in the library to merit putting up signs, he said, but anyone who breaks the new rules will be notified.

The ordinance was adopted without much discussion by the Assembly, which voted unanimously in favor.

"This was a pretty easy one," Barr said. "The assembly was interested in adding this in, and did so."

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