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Editorial: Citywide e-cig ban is overbearing

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 16, 2014 5:00 AM

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From Transportation Security Administration body scanners to spying on our cell phones, technology is creeping into our lives at an accelerating rate. The new ways of interacting with our surroundings has put pressure on our legal system to keep up, as new technologies render our old ones obsolete. Most recently in Iowa City, the issue is e-cigarettes.

Electronic cigarettes are smoking devices that provide nicotine, often in conjunction with flavoring, which is inhaled through water vapor. The devices require battery power and are small enough to be portable. These little smoking companions have become remarkably popular in the last few years.

IRI, a market research firm based in Chicago, reports that sales have grown from $2.2 million in 2009 to more than $710 million last year. Growth like that is bound to get people talking. 

Last week, the Iowa City City Council met to debate the issue of e-cigarettes. The first vote will be to determine if they should be banned on all public property. However, the City Council is not ruling out the option of finding ways to ban them in private establishments as well. E-cigarettes are being considered as an addition to the Smokefree Air Act, which would ban them in transit vehicles, city-owned parking ramps, and the Pedestrian Mall. Currently, a Johnson County ban already prohibits e-cigarettes on county buildings and property. 

The bans aims to protect people and act as a deterrent to unhealthy behavior. In fact, the Iowa Smokefree Air Act website explicitly states that the legislation exists to “protect employees and the general public.” If legislation for e-cigarettes follow the same course as normal cigarettes, it would imply that e-cigs are just as dangerous to our health — a claim that just isn’t true.

A University of Southern California study last month found secondhand smoke from e-cigarettes has 10 times less harmful particles than normal cigarette smoke. The study does conclude that there is much research that still needs to be done on the devices.

This isn’t to say that e-cigs are benign. The most serious affront is that they are marketed as a risk-free product. From 2011 to 2012, the number of high-school students who have tried them has jumped from 4.7 to 10 percent. Because the cartridges used in e-cigs that contain the nicotine are less standardized, it is significantly easier to smoke larger quantities of nicotine. The flavoring agents can also cause lung irritation. City Councilor Rick Dobyn, a University of Iowa clinical professor of family medicine, characterized the safety of e-cigs with an anecdote: “Jumping off a three-story building is far healthier than jumping off a 10-story building.”

Despite these concerns, most experts agree that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to traditional smoking, and their potential value as a harm reduction tool has yet to be fully explored.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that while this technological evolution of smoking is still new, officials must be careful before lumping them into the same category as normal cigarettes.

What we know now is that e-cigs are largely safer than traditional cigarettes, and a complete citywide ban in public places seems overbearing at this point.

However, the research on e-cigarettes is still incomplete, which means that indoor bans in certain public places could be a reasonable middle ground between safeguarding public health and creating excessive regulation until there are more studies on their effects.


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