Politics & Government

Effects of e-cigarettes debated at county-sponsored event (+video)

The question of whether e-cigarettes are harmful saw polarized disagreement Tuesday during a debate hosted by Sedgwick County commissioners.

Commissioner Jim Howell decided to host the debate in hopes of clarifying the county’s policy regarding e-cigarettes.

Right now, the county’s language about vaping — the term used to describe e-cigarette use — is ambiguous. Some supervisors in different county departments set their own ban on e-cigarette use, but in general, it’s allowed.

Howell said he hopes the commissioners will be able to draft a more straightforward and consistent policy about e-cigarette use now that they have heard opposing sides of the issue.

The debate consisted of two presenters: Kimber Richter, director of UKanQuit Hospital Tobacco Treatment Service at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and Sean Gore, chairman of the Oklahoma Vapor Advocacy League, who also owns vape shops in Oklahoma City.

In short, Gore said he wants to see wider acceptance of e-cigarettes because they offer smokers a way to quit using tobacco cigarettes.

Richter warned the commissioners about unknown health risks associated with e-cigarettes. They are largely unregulated, and with the industry just about 10 years old, she said, the scientific evidence is not yet developed.

Relationship with Big Tobacco

Gore was the subject of a 2014 New York Times article about the growing vape industry around the country.

The story focused on Oklahoma City because it’s been an e-cigarette boomtown, and it highlighted Gore as “a leader in the state’s vaping industry.”

During Tuesday’s debate, Gore wore cowboy boots and jeans with a gray plaid suit jacket, gray pinstriped shirt and a black-striped orange tie.

He was accompanied by several other vape shop owners from Oklahoma City.

While presenting to the Sedgwick County commissioners, Gore pointed to his fellow vape shop business owners and said they all represent the industry: mom-and-pop style business owners independent of Big Tobacco.

But the New York Times article paints Gore as a man who walks a fine line between being a grassroots lobbyist who wants to wean people from Big Tobacco, and on the other side, reportedly having loose ties with Big Tobacco companies.

Gore said Tuesday that the only reason people perceive him as having a loose alliance with Big Tobacco is because the companies have backed some of his bills in the Oklahoma Legislature. But he says that’s beyond his control.

“Any time Big Tobacco jumps in support of one of our bills, they’re going to call it ties,” Gore said. “I would prefer they stay away.”

Gore said he saw a news story in late October about Sedgwick County’s policy regarding e-cigarettes and reached out to Howell.

Gore said he emailed Howell studies and other information every other day. Gore said he does not plan to start a business in Kansas and instead emphasized a humanitarian interest in Sedgwick County.

“This is about helping getting smokers a way to transition off combustibles,” he said, referring to traditional cigarettes. “We try to do what we can to ensure their freedom of choice and safer alternative is in tact.”

Gore said the pharmaceutical industry works with the government to ban e-cigarettes as a way to push its agenda for profitable smoking cessation treatments.

“We should be regulating with health, not wealth,” he said.

Tobacco industry history

Richter focused on the history of the tobacco industry. She compared the unknown health risks with the vape industry to the unknown health risks in the tobacco industry 50 years ago.

“It’s like we’re back in the 1940s and 1950s,” she said.

The industry is currently exempt from product safety laws, she said.

Because of the lack of regulations, consumers don’t know what chemicals are used in different e-cigarettes.

“We’re really in the Wild West in terms of e-cigarettes,” Richter said.

The problem with these products, she said, is that the health issues can take a long time to come to light.

Smoking restrictions were not passed to protect those who smoke, she said, but those who want to avoid secondhand smoke.

She said vaping can become a point of contention if the smell or unknown health consequences bother employees.

From a workplace standpoint, Richter said “E-cigarettes are going to be an HR nightmare.”

Commission response

Howell said if people can use e-cigarette indoors, it offers an incentive for smokers to switch to vaping.

He said he thinks banning e-cigarettes would encourage smokers to continue smoking traditional cigarettes.

“Many of the people using e-cigarettes, you’re banishing them to the same cloud of smoke they’re trying to get away from,” he said.

Howell said encouraging people to stop smoking would reduce employee health insurance costs paid by the county.

After listening to the debate, Howell said he hopes to draft a policy that allows e-cigarette use in county buildings. He said he is not convinced that vaping is harmful, especially to bystanders.

The other four commissioners have not voiced a position.

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn