GREENFIELD — The debate over smoking electronic cigarettes in public places is expected to intensify next week.
Stephanie Rogers, owner of the Vapor Lock store in Greenfield, plans to attend a meeting of the Hancock County Health Board Tuesday with roughly 400 petition signatures and plenty of support.
And while several elected county officials say the decision to ban e-cigarettes in public places should be reconsidered, it’s hard to tell whether a change will come.
Battery-operated electronic cigarettes deliver nicotine to the lungs but doesn’t use tobacco that has to be burned to release the substance. First developed in 2003 in China, e-cigarettes were introduced in the United States in 2006, and federal officials have been debating how to regulate them ever since.
The debate hit home in February. Hancock County health officer Dr. Sandra Aspy told county commissioners she believes the county’s no-smoking ordinance includes e-cigarettes, and therefore the devices should be banned in public buildings, restaurants, retail stores and more.
Commissioners agreed, following a trend in an increasing number of places to ban the devices.
But since then, a growing number of local residents passionate about the product are standing up in protest.
“Why don’t you let each business make their own decision on what they want to do?” Rogers said, pointing out that many use e-cigarettes as a tool to stop smoking.
Rogers immediately took the issue to Facebook and has been receiving support over the past five weeks. In business two years, Vapor Lock recently moved into a new storefront quadruple the size of its previous location because of the growing demand for the product.
But Rogers says her fight isn’t about her business. It’s about the customers, many of whom say electronic cigarettes are a healthier alternative to smoking.
“You’re telling hundreds of people who are proud of themselves that they’re not a smoker anymore, that they’re a smoker,” she said.
Hancock County’s smoking ban, which was adopted in 2008 and supersedes statewide law because it is stricter, does not specifically list e-cigarettes. But the ordinance covers people exposed to “toxic chemicals whether in the form of tobacco smoke or otherwise.” The products listed in the ordinance include cigarettes, cigars, pipes and “any other lighted and/or smoldering equipment.” People smoking in public places could be subject to a $50 fine, with escalating fines for repeat offenders.
The statewide smoking ban in Indiana does not prohibit the use of e-cigarettes, though state law does not allow them to be sold to minors under 18.
Communities statewide are weighing what to do about e-cigarettes, an officer for the state Department of Health said in an email in February. Schools, health care facilities and communities throughout Indiana are considering whether to include electronic cigarettes in bans. The Indianapolis ordinance, for example, does specifically include electronic cigarettes.
Last year, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller joined colleagues from 39 other states asking the Food and Drug Administration to strictly regulate electronic cigarettes because the candy-flavored vapors appeal to young people.
But it’s unclear whether hundreds of protestors in Hancock County will make a difference by speaking up.
Derek Towle, one of the two commissioners who agreed e-cigarettes should be included in the county smoking ban, said this week it’s hard to tell just what kind of decision should be made, but he wants to hear first from health officials.
“Do I think that it meets it or doesn’t meet it? I don’t know,” Towle said. “Do I agree? I don’t know what’s in that vapor. I don’t know what they put inside those things.”
Towle was contacted by Rogers recently. While county commissioners have ultimate authority over the countywide smoking ordinance, Towle suggested she go to the health board and see if the board will change its recommendation.
The health board meets only once a quarter; the meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday will be held in a larger room – the commissioners court at the county annex – to accommodate a big crowd.
“It’s not our ordinance; it’s the commissioners’ ordinance to change,” said health department administrator Crystal Baker, who added that she doesn’t know whether the health board would be open to changing its recommendation.
Commissioners Towle and Tom Stevens were the ones who agreed electronic cigarettes should be included in the ordinance in February. Commissioner Brad Armstrong was not at the meeting but said this week there should be some wiggle room or middle ground. He added that he doubts his fellow commissioners would change their minds or that the board of health would change its recommendation.
“In the past, the board of health – they don’t give an inch on anything. It’s just kind of all or nothing.” Armstrong said.
Armstrong was against the smoking ordinance six years ago and now says it should be relaxed.
“I think probably a rational solution would be to look at that and come up with some middle ground in places you can use an e-cigarette and maybe address a couple of places in the smoking ordinance,” he said.
Armstrong isn’t the only one. County councilman John Jessup has used e-cigarettes six months as a means of kicking the habit and also believes the county’s executive branch should re-examine the issue. Councilman Marc Huber just stopped into the Vapor Lock store this week to learn more about e-cigarettes and says he, too, doesn’t believe the product should be treated like any other cigarette. Huber, who is running against Commissioner Towle in the May 6 primary election, says he is against government regulation in general and hopes the issue can be brought back open for discussion.
The product has even been used in county buildings. Pat Powers, director of Hancock County Community Corrections, said his office had been selling e-cigarettes to inmates as a way to keep them inside. Now, they’re switching back to traditional cigarettes.
“We had to have… two smoke breaks a shift, where one of my employees takes them outside to smoke,” Powers said. “That creates a security risk.”
Powers, who is an electronic cigarette user himself, plans to be at Tuesday’s meeting to try to persuade the health department to change its recommendation.
“I don’t think it fits by definition,” he said.
Still, county health advocates are wary of the unregulated product. Brandee Bastin, coordinator of the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition, said in February that it’s alarming what people are putting in their bodies considering the product is so new and very little research has been done.
“Everyone is just now learning the data and getting all of the information, and… more work needs to be done,” she said.
County attorney Ray Richardson said ultimately the authority over the county smoking ordinance falls on county commissioners.
“If (protestors) can convince the board of health, then the commissioners might go along with it,” Richardson said. “But if they fail (with) the board of health, they can still go to commissioners.”