Huffing and Puffing

City Paper

A bill to restrict the use of vapor products, often called “electronic cigarettes” and “e-cigs,” is before the Baltimore City Council, prompting a well-attended Oct. 7 public hearing on the bill before the council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee. Comments by the committee’s chair, James Kraft (D-1st District), and the dozen or so people who testified mirrored the ongoing, international debate over whether “vaping” is a public-health threat or a public-health miracle. In the end, Kraft announced that the bill’s current scope—it would, most importantly, ban vaping wherever smoking is currently prohibited, including in workplaces, bars, and restaurants—is likely to be changed.

“Some folks have proposed amendments,” Kraft announced at the end of the two-hour hearing before about 100 people, so the committee “will not vote on the bill today,” but will “announce at a later date a voting session” and discuss “any amendments at that time.”  

In opening the hearing, Kraft explained the bill’s origins. He was at the Baltimore Orioles’ opening-day game in early April, in the stands with his granddaughter, when he “saw some smoke going up” from someone seated nearby. Then, “a little bit later, another person” exhaled wisps of smoke. Turned out, the fans were vaping—using battery-powered vapor products that heat a liquid which often contains nicotine to create vapor that’s inhaled. Kraft talked to an usher about it, who related “frustration with this,” since it sometimes led to “confrontations” with vapers who “got a little testy.” 

To Kraft, the experience prompted a couple of thoughts: that “young children were thinking that people were smoking,” and that “it’s a confusing situation for enforcement” of non-smoking laws, since “from a distance” it is “very difficult to determine whether it’s vapor or smoke.” So Kraft decided that Baltimore needed some rules. By the end of the month, he introduced Council Bill 14-0371, which, as it states, would extend “the laws that prohibit smoking in certain places . . . to apply to electronic smoking devices.”

At the hearing, Kraft emphasized that he’d postponed an earlier hearing on the bill to “let me look into this a little bit more,” because, even though “no one’s going to say it’s a [smoking] cessation device,” he explained, “there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence” to that effect. Kraft wanted everyone to know that his efforts to regulate vaping are “not a knee-jerk reaction,” because he’s “aware of what’s going out there” with the “exponential growth” in the use of vapor products, so he’s “not acting in a void or a vacuum.”

Much of the testimony hit on the same themes heard in the larger, global debate over vaping, which has divided the worldwide public-health community. Generally speaking, the need to regulate aspects of the rapidly growing market for vapor products is universally accepted. But in the debate over how to do so, those who want to crack down on them harshly play up their currently little-known potential for harm, while proponents of minimal regulation play up their currently little-known potential for harm reduction—while emphasizing that vapor products’ sizeable penetration in the marketplace, including among smokers who used them to quit, has coincided with an ongoing drop in traditional cigarette use.  

(Full disclosure: This writer, while working on a City Paper feature about vaping [“Nic Fit,” April 9], invested in vapor products and started to use them, and, after more than 30 years of heavy smoking, hasn’t had a cigarette since April 7.)

Several people testified during the hearing that they’d used vapor products to quit smoking, after no other smoking-cessation technology had worked for them. James Conte, for instance, described himself as an ex-smoker who quit 20 months ago, and has since eliminated the use of nicotine in the flavored liquids he uses. He said he had his blood tested recently, and “there were no toxins or heavy metals found in my blood,” adding that “no one has shown me where it’s actually causing second-hand harm to anyone.” He also wondered about enforcement of the proposed ban, asking, “how do you know that there is nicotine in it?” and pointing out that retailer General Nutrition Centers sells a deer-antler vapor product popular with athletes, but contains no nicotine. 

Another ex-smoker, Geoff Habicht, the chief operating officer of the vapor-products company Smoking Vapor, told the committee that “I’m not against certain controls and industry standards,” but said he believes a ban would “completely push people that are ex-smokers into a position where they are around smokers,” because, other than in their homes, they’d only be allowed to vape where smokers currently congregate. Instead, he suggested, “businesses can decide” whether they want to allow people to vape on their premises.

Sal Filippelli, who sells vapor products at his Fells Point shop, Harbor Vapor, stressed that “this should be an option readily available to the public,” adding that employers have warmed to the technology because it allows workers to avoid the “countless hours” that they previously “wasted on cigarette breaks.” 

A powerful voice in the debate not heard at the hearing is David Abrams, executive director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies and a Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health professor, who has urged caution in regulating vapor products. “The evidence that we do have does suggest that they are less harmful than cigarettes,” Abrams told the website Healthcare Policy Podcast in May, adding that he’s “cautiously optimistic that this technology is truly what we call a disruptive technology. It may well be the first popular product that’s attractive and appealing enough to compete with a much more lethal combusting of tobacco.” He added that vapor products have the potential to “make cigarettes obsolete much more rapidly than we ever thought possible even 10 years ago.” 

Lining up in favor of the ban are several city agencies that submitted reports to the committee. The executive secretary of the Environmental Control Board (ECB), Sandra Baker, wrote that “e-cigarettes have not been fully studies [sic] and as a result the health risks as well as benefits are currently unknown,” so the ECB “supports the ban and/or control of e-cigarettes until more information is available.” Interim health commissioner Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey wrote that the Health Department “supports this bill because it is in line with the tenants [sic] of our comprehensive health policy agency,” and then cited statistics about the well-documented hazards of smoking tobacco, along with data about the dangers e-cigarettes pose to youngsters. 

At the hearing, Duval-Harvey stressed that “smoking is something that people do not do anymore in public spaces,” and expressed concern that vapor products may be used “to circumvent the smoke-free law.” Across the country, she said, “a quarter-million middle- and high-school students who had never smoked, but are using electronic cigarettes,” and “they may become addicted to nicotine” as a result, and then “switch to what we now call conventional cigarettes.” All in all, she called the proposed ban “responsible public policy that reduces harm to others.” 

Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who represents the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, was supposed to testify at the hearing, but, reached later by phone, explained that he couldn’t make it because he was “under the weather.” As it stands, he said, the bill “classifies vaping devices under the category of cigarettes, and puts on them all the same restrictions as cigarettes,” but “these devices are not tobacco products” and “there is just no comparison between the two, in terms of any second-hand effect or any health issues whatsoever.” Asked how he’d like to see the bill amended, he said, “I’m in kill mode,” but “I just don’t know where the votes are yet.” 

City Paper obtained a copy of proposed amendments to the bill that would vastly scale down the places where the use of vapor products would be prohibited, limiting the ban to licensed day care facilities, schools and school buses, and elevators. Asked about the amendments, Bereano said they were not his ideas, but were “changes proposed from [tobacco-company] lobbyists.” Short of killing the bill, as he would like, Bereano says of the proposed amendments, “there are a lot of people using this as a substitute for cigarettes, and for those people, that would be good thing,” since it would mean most of them could still vape wherever businesses and employers allow them to.

After the hearing concluded, the crowd exited the City Council chambers. Moving in the opposite direction to confer with Kraft were two tobacco-company lobbyists: Lisa Harris Jones, who represents Lorillard, and Frank Boston III, who counts among his clients Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA. City Paper wanted to ask Jones, Boston, and Kraft about any proposed amendments to the bill, but they did not return messages by press time.

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