Council committee advances e-cig beach ban

The tide has turned on early County Council opposition to an e-cigarette ban at beaches and parks.

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The tide has turned on early County Council opposition to an e-cigarette ban at beaches and parks.

Riding a wave of apparent public support, the council Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee on Thursday voted 6-2 to forward Bill 302 — outlawing the use of e-cigarettes anywhere tobacco smoking is prohibited — to the County Council with a positive recommendation.

Representatives of Tobacco Free Big Island squared off against e-cigarette users and vendors in the debate, each side citing conflicting information about the first- and second-hand health effects of e-cigarettes.

“Evidence is clear that (electronic smoking devices) do not just emit harmless water vapor but a harmful aerosol,” said Tami MacAller, West Hawaii community coordinator for the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii. “Secondhand aerosol contains nicotine, ultra-fine particles and toxins known to cause cancer.”

“There should be no question about supporting this bill. It’s about protecting the public health,” MacAller added. “In order for all laws to work, they should be consistent, clear and without exceptions.”

The committee had postponed the measure last month after it became apparent to the bill sponsor, Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, that the council favored banning the devices inside buildings and enclosed areas, but not outdoors.

“This bill is all about protecting the public health,” Kanuha said. “The right to smoke should carry with it the responsibility to not hurt others.”

Most of the two dozen testifiers seemed to support the measure. A letter-writing campaign to the council generated another 35 favorable comments, most as form letters.

Opponent Tim Michel, testifying from Hilo, said a petition bearing more than 1,000 signatures was provided to the council.

“I was a smoker for 36 years,” Michel said. “I quit smoking with the help of e-cigarettes.”

Michel and other opponents said the vapor exhaled by e-cigarette users dissipates rapidly and doesn’t harm others. The device contains no tobacco, they said, but a propylene glycol made from cabbage, the same ingredient used in fog machines at nightclubs and concerts. Many e-cigarette users don’t even include nicotine in their mix, they said.

That didn’t satisfy several residents testifying from Pahoa.

When Toby Hazel goes to the beach, “I don’t want to smell tobacco and I don’t want to smell burned cabbage or whatever the hell it is,” Hazel said.

“Work on your addiction problems,” advised Greg Smith, saying substituting one thing for another isn’t the answer.

Michel gave council members a copy of a Dec. 11 letter from former Surgeon General Richard Carmona urging the New York City Council not to include e-cigarettes in the city’s Smoke Free Air Act, saying the devices were “the most promising weapon yet in the fight against tobacco-related illness and death.”

“Don’t try to fit the square peg into a round hole,” Michel said.

It’s unclear what changed council members’ minds.

The two remaining opponents, Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi and Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, cited concerns about hampering individuals’ efforts to use e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking, the difficulty of enforcing an outdoor ban and respecting individual liberties.

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“It’s personal liberty,” said Ilagan. “I don’t ever want to see our government taking over that freedom, that liberty, that choice.”

Smoking e-cigarettes, or “vaping,” is gaining popularity nationwide, especially among the young. Industry analysts say consuming tobacco through this method will surpass smoking traditional cigarettes within the next 10 years.

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