Vapor Is Not Smoke. Why Is This So Hard to Understand?

Smoke from the Morgan Fire on Mount Diablo in 2013

I had a brief moment to catch up on the local headlines this evening, and what did I see in the Contra Costa Times? An article by Rowena Coetsee, whom I know from my days as president of the Oakley Chamber of Commerce, headlined “Oakley City Council eyes expanded anti-smoking ordinance.”

Uh-oh. It was the proposed addition of e-cigarettes onto an anti-smoking ordinance in Oakley that turned my husband from a hobbyist vaper into a political activist. He wrote a long, passionate post about it called “Ignorance and laziness prevails in Oakley, CA over electronic cigarettes.” It was not what you’d call kind to Roger Galstan, but it was very thoroughly researched. My husband does not do things by halves.

Mayor Pope and the Oakley City Council decided to eliminate e-cigarettes from that particular ordinance, which involved smoking in apartment buildings. There is very little likelihood that the vapor from an e-cigarette, even if the vaper is blowing enormous clouds, can carry from inside one residence over to another. Smoke, which is made up of large particles, travels further, and gets trapped in carpets and even paint, is something else again.

The new ordinance addresses outdoor smoking in public places. Many cities in California prohibit outdoor smoking. Personally, I prefer not to be exposed to any kind of smoke. I’ve always found cigarette smoke more offensive than wood smoke from chimneys, which is generally pleasant unless it’s my own fireplace failing to draw and the smoke is filling up my house. I’m not thrilled when my neighbor lights up his grill and I smell burning lighter fluid. The smoke from grass fires during the summer months fills the entire neighborhood. I was relieved when the smoke of Mount Diablo burning last summer went in the other direction, since I could see the fire from my house.

But one or two smokers in a large area like a park are not usually a problem. I hesitate to endorse a ban on smoking in public parks unless there is going to be a crowd. And I think that it would be ridiculous to include e-cigarettes in such a ban, because vapor dissipates much more quickly than smoke, especially outdoors, and the smell is usually both faint and pleasant.

Fortunately, it seems from William Galstan’s report on the proposed ordinance that he agrees with me. Perhaps he learned from his earlier encounter with my husband to do some homework. So there is probably not too great a risk that vaping will be banned in public parks and outdoor locations other than restaurant seating areas. (I think restaurant owners should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow vaping on their patios, and savvy restaurateurs could attract business if they permit it, since vape meets have to take place somewhere.)

Too many municipalities want to lump e-cigarettes in with tobacco and ban their use everywhere. These bans are pointless and possibly harmful, because they force vapers into smoking areas and expose them to the cigarette smoke that they are now trying to avoid. Enforcing e-cigarette bans is a waste of police resources, and the police know it.

New York City recently passed an ordinance banning the use of e-cigarettes in public places. Vapers gathered in Central Park to protest. The leader of the protest even phoned the police to be sure they knew that people would be vaping illegally. Three police officers showed up. No one was cited, much less arrested–to the considerable disappointment of the protest leader. The message is clear: the police are not going to enforce this law when they have more important things to do. And I’m fairly sure that the police in New York City always have more important things to do.

The second part of this ordinance, which frankly ought to be a completely separate ordinance, deals with banning the use of e-cigarettes by minors. As I mentioned in my earlier post about AB 1500, the sale of e-cigarettes to minors is already illegal in California. It is not now a crime for minors to smoke cigarettes, only to buy them.* Making it a crime for minors to use e-cigarettes is a drastic step and makes a statement that the City of Oakley thinks e-cigarettes are more dangerous than tobacco cigarettes.

And that’s such a wrong-headed idea that it merits a blog post of its own.

*Correction 6/9/14. At the time I wrote this post, I believed that there was no penalty for minors caught smoking. (I believed this because that was what my husband had told me.) We had overlooked California Penal Code Section 308(b), which prescribes a $75 fine or 30 hours of community service for possession of tobacco products by minors. It’s a small paragraph sandwiched between extensive sections dealing with sales to minors, and easy to overlook.

WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.

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