Council can’t pass e-cig ban on first try; Policy will likely get approved on March 16

Published 10:53 am Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As expected, the Austin City Council couldn’t pass a permanent ban on e-cigarette smoking in public during its first reading at a public meeting.

The council voted 4-3 Monday for the ban. Council Members Jeremy Carolan, Janet Anderson and Steve King supported the measure while Council Members Judy Enright, Jeff Austin and Michael Jordal voted against. Mayor Tom Stiehm supported the measure as a tiebreaker in place of Dave Hagen, who was absent.

The measure needed to pass unanimously during its first reading, but council members can approve the policy on a majority vote at a March 16 public meeting.

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“It really is a public safety issue,” Anderson said.

Council members passed a one-year moratorium last April banning the use of e-cigarettes and hookahs in public places and businesses. Yet the issue divided the council, which voted 4-3 for the ban twice before enacting it. The council once again voted 4-3 on Feb. 16 to move the issue forward.

Various experts testified once more on e-cigarettes during the meeting. Karissa Studier, a registered nurse with Mower County, explained recent research showed more students were using e-cigarettes and more harmful chemicals were found in some e-cigarette vapor.

E-cigarettes are a cylindrical device used to heat nicotine and produce a vapor. They have been on the market for about six years and haven’t undergone thorough testing by the Food and Drug Administration. Public health experts say e-cigarettes are filled with an unknown amount of nicotine and other chemicals.

In addition, police and health officials are finding more cases where people who use the e-cigarette device are smoking other substances, such as methamphetamine or crack cocaine.

“It’s hard to know what they’re smoking in those things,” King said.

Thor Bergland, a counselor at Austin High School, said he is encountering more students using e-cigarettes. He said some students can be adversely affected by the vapor, which in one case caused a student to become sullen and withdrawn. That student later tested positive for benzodiazepines, a class of sedative drug, even though the only thing he used was the e-cigarette.

Council Member Michael Jordal, who was the most vocal critic of the moratorium in 2014, was still against the measure.

“I’m not going to take that right away from a property owner who thinks there’s value in having that on his property,” he said.

E-cigarette proponents say e-cigarettes have helped people quit smoking, though the FDA doesn’t classify them as a tobacco cessation tool. Studier said there’s still no scientific studies backing that claim, however.

State legislators considered adding e-cigarettes to the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act in 2014, which would ban e-cigarettes in public places similar to other tobacco products. Though lawmakers didn’t resolve the issue, many municipalities have passed ordinances similar to Austin.