Screencap via CNN on Youtube
Last month, in a piece about third-hand smoke being potentially deadly, I said banning e-cigarettes "would be a fucking stupid thing to do." Well the Los Angeles City Council is officially fucking stupid.
Like five states and the District of Columbia before it, Los Angeles has passed an ordinance banning the use of e-cigarettes anywhere you can't smoke regular cigarettes. The law just adds "Oh, and also e-cigarettes" to existing bans on smoking in public. In Los Angeles, that means obvious places like your desk at work and in Starbucks, but also outdoor dining sections of restaurants and city-sponsored farmers' markets.
The ordinance is the handiwork of Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, whose rationale, according to David Zahniser and Marisa Gerber of the LA Times, was that he breathed a lot of secondhand smoke back when he was a waiter, so to hell with the evidence that e-cigarette vapor doesn't harm bystanders. Council President Herb Wesson was a big backer of O'Farrell's efforts, and he said to the Times, “I’m telling you, the high percentage of kids that smoke, smoke because it’s cool. And when you’re 15 you want to be cool,” and “I will not support anything—anything—that might attract one new smoker.” Mr. Wesson did not provide the testimony of any 15-year-olds who agreed that sucking fog out of a severed robot penis looks "cool."
Councilman Joe Buscaino attempted to exempt bars and other places where kids are not allowed. He said, "I don’t think they should be regulated exactly the same way. And I’ve heard from so many people, including my cousin Anthony, that they’ve stopped smoking from the help of e-cigarettes." In the end, he still voted for the ordinance anyway, and his exemption failed. In fact, the ordinance passed unanimously.
Screencap of Jeff Stier via Youtube user SunnyDayAmerica
Jeff Stier, a lobbyist who made a name for himself opposing the iron regulatory fist of former mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York (where e-cigarette regulations already exist), showed up to voice his opposition to the ordinance. He spun a yarn about a hypothetical ex-smoker having a nicotine fit in a bar, forced out into the cold with the old-school plant-and-paper smokers, who tempt him or her back into their diabolical fold.
Elected officials like those on the Los Angeles City Council don't seem to hear the message about e-cigarettes helping people quit, despite people like former American Lung Association CEO Charles D. Connor coming out in favor of their use as a smoking-cessation tool. They're doing a cost-benefit analysis in their heads. Voting no on this ordinance, and then having it turn out that e-cigarettes turn your lungs into raspberry jam, would make them look horrible later, so they're taking a ban-first-and-ask-questions-later approach. As Councilwoman Nury Martinez put it, "If this device turns out to be safe, then we can always undo the ordinance. But if this device proves not to be safe, we cannot undo the harm this will create on the public health.”
Perhaps in an effort to upstage the LA City Council, Long Beach, the second biggest city in Los Angeles County, passed an even stricter ban on e-cigarettes Tuesday night. We attempted to reach Councilman Paul Krekorian and Mr. Busciano—who both expressed doubts about the ordinance while still voting for it—for comment, but Busciano's head of communication said they would "get back to us" at a later date. Krekorian's office did not answer the phone.
Ordinarily, new technologies don't have to be proven safe. They're just allowed until someone proves they're harmful. This hasn't been the case for e-cigs, even though their major ingredient besides nicotine, propylene glycol, is the same stuff found in your garden-variety smoke machine. If one can go to a concert and inhale this stuff with impunity, why not be able to vape too?
The precedent for this carcinogenic-until-proven-innocent doctrine is likely from the World Health Organization's official press release on the subject last year. It says that consumers should wait for word from a national regulatory body before considering them safe and effective. The release came about a month after the UK's National Health Service concluded that e-cigarettes should be dispensed and regulated as medication for quitting smoking.
Last fall, the FDA proposed a rule to regulate e-cigarettes that is currently being reviewed by the White House Office of Budget and Management. The public has now been waiting a few weeks for the two organizations to release a proposal for regulation, but no one knows quite when it will happen or why they're dragging their feet. It isn't likely that the FDA will declare e-cigarettes harmless. You're sucking chemical gas into one of your body's air holes. We can all be adults, though, and see that even if e-cigarettes aren't as medically unimpeachable as a handful of blueberries, vapor is still probably a hundred times better than breathing grandpa's Pall Malls. And for that we should let the office neckbeards use them while they code our websites.
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