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Vape ‘em if you’ve got ‘em

E-cigarettes are not affected by the city of Houston’s smoking ban. For now, anyway.

When city officials announced a sweeping ban on smoking in public parks last month, many in Houston’s growing ranks of electronic cigarette users worried the new rules applied to them.

They do not, but the concern was well founded. Of the country’s five most populous cities, Houston is the only one without a ban on where the devices can be used. There is not enough research on the relatively new, battery-powered plastic or metal tubes that heat liquid nicotine to know their medical effects, leading many cities to preemptively ban them and others to watch how the national debate plays out. For now, Houston is in the latter group.

E-cigarettes emit a water vapor rather than smoke. While most health officials agree using e-cigarettes, known as “vaping,” is less harmful than traditional smoking, many have raised concerns about whether the devices reduce or lead to conventional smoking. Other unknowns include precisely what chemicals the water vapor contains and whether bystanders absorb any nicotine.

Even as Houston has expanded its general smoking restrictions, officials have been hands-off with the controversial devices. The city smoking ordinance does not include e-cigarettes.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker said it is not something the administration is looking to change, largely because e-cigarettes are not considered a tobacco product.

The American Lung Association’s Houston chapter, however, is advocating for the city take the approach of other large urban areas and ban them in the same places as regular cigarettes while the health risks remain unknown.

Some city officials, too, are keen on broaching the issue. Council member Jack Christie, a chiropractor with strong opinions on health policy, said he would like to see restrictions on e-cigarettes in public places, voicing concern about the potential effects of second-hand vapor. Council member Ellen Cohen, chair of the Council’s Quality of Life Committee, also has concerns about second-hand vapor and said she would like to see more federal guidance before considering whether to include them in the city’s smoking ordinance.

“There’s are a lot of things that Houston doesn’t just throw out regulations on,” Christie said. “We let other cities experiment and see what works. And I’m not for over-regulation, but if it helps innocent people, and I think this would, we should do it.”

As you know, I’ve been wondering about this. I’m okay with things as they are now – as the story notes, there’s no litter issue with e-cigarettes, and I don’t think they’re nearly as prevalent as the traditional kind; I know I’ve not encountered any vapers in public spaces as yet. Should there be further regulation at the federal level – which multiple states and local health officials are asking for – or more research showing that they’re harmful, especially to people in their vicinity, then that would be a different story. Until then, I can live with the status quo.

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