More than 100 people packed into Tahlequah City Hall Monday evening to debate a proposed ordinance that would prohibit electronic cigarettes on city property.
At the end of what was at times a heated discussion, city councilors were unable to take action on the ordinance; instead, they’ll bring the issue back to the table at a future meeting, possibly on Nov. 18.
Mayor Jason Nichols started the discussion by telling attendees the intent of the proposed ordinance is not to ban “e-cigarettes” citywide – the city doesn’t have that authority – but instead to ban them on city property.
He also explained that councilors didn’t put together the proposal themselves, but were instead placing the matter on the agenda to discuss at the request of Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust. Nichols told attendees that the council was responding to a request like it would if anyone else asked for a matter to be placed on the agenda.
Cherokee County Communities of Excellence Tobacco Control Program Director Carol Choate, and Val Dobbins, chair of the program, fielded a flood of questions and comments about the proposal.
“This is all about clean air, it’s not about shutting down e-cigarette shops,” Dobbins said several times Monday night. “We’re not against that at all. They send down these ordinances and they ask us to propose in the cities. It’s not about shoving anything down your throat. First thing off the bat, in order for us to be certified healthy at the ‘excellent’ level for a city, the first thing they ask us for is to add e-cigarettes, or electronic smoking devices, to our ordinances that have to do with tobacco.”
If the ordinance is passed, the local tobacco-control efforts could also be the recipient of $42,000 in funding, Choate said.
“Although there is a place for e-cigarettes, we think, in cessation [of tobacco use] – there are some good purposes – we also see that we’re talking about clean air,” said Dobbins. “[Electronic cigarettes are] less toxic, quite a bit so – they say like 80 percent less toxic [than tobacco cigarettes] – but to us, clean air is 100-percent clean air.”
Shawn Gore, president and chairman of the Oklahoma Vapors Advocacy League, said the proposed ordinance boils down to funding, not healthy living or clean air.
“This is money driven; this really has nothing to do with health,” Gore told the council. “The cigarette industry is expected to overtake the tobacco industry within a decade. If [e-cigarettes] are unregulated and not taxed, what happens to these health organizations? They lose their funding.”
Opponents of the ban also argued that e-cigarettes, which produce a vapor rather than a smoke, do not contain detectable amounts of substances in the air.
Proponents argued the devices use nicotine.
Gore said some studies show it would be more harmful to breath the air in a large city than to breath the air inside an enclosed room where someone has been using an e-cigarette, or “vaping,” as he called it.
Doug Renfro told councilors that residents who attended Monday’s meeting were most upset about being “bullied” by governments for a number of years.
“I don’t think at this point it’s really about the argument of clean air or not clean air; it’s more or less we’re starting to feel bullied now. As a smoker, we were pretty much demonized in the mid- to late-’90s, no different than what prejudice other people have felt. At this point, we’re kind of jumping through hoops and trying to follow regulations put on us by governments and by agencies, and at this point, I think we pretty much feel that if we give in on this and say ‘OK, to heck with it,’ then we’re caving to yet another activist group, and we’re being bullied, and we’re pretty much tired of it.”
Northeastern State public educator Dr. Mark Giese said the council has to put on a balancing act.
“Your job is always, in these issues, to balance civil rights with the health rights of the community,” said Giese. “With health research, there is no clear way where they’re leaning. So if you have to lean one way or the other tonight, would you not want to err on the side of caution, and err on the side of community health?”
Nichols ended the discussion by acknowledging some confusion in the wording of the proposal, which some feel would prohibit the electronic devices not only on city property, but in other places such as businesses or restaurants.
Nichols said the council will work to clear up the “misunderstanding” before the ordinance is presented for a vote.
He also allowed city attorney Park Medearis to address the wording. Medearis said vaporized devices should not be called a tobacco product, but instead “nicotine-delivery devices,” like a tobacco cigarette.
“To me, the issue isn’t clean air, or not clean air; the issue is, can the city, and should the city, diminish nicotine-delivery devices or eliminate them on city-owned property?” said Medearis. “And any arguments to the contrary, I feel like, on a medical level, are going to fail. The key, in my estimation, is that they both are nicotine delivery devices. Nicotine is a drug; it is bad for you.”
Tahlequah city councilors will hold the mid-month special meeting Monday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m., in council chambers at City Hall.