Politics & Government

Sedgwick County Commission OKs 'vape' policy for workers, public

VIDEO: E-cigarette use in county buildings debated

Sedgwick County commissioners hosted an e-cigarette debate to hear both sides of the issue before they decide if and how to change the county's e-cigarette policy in the future.
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Sedgwick County commissioners hosted an e-cigarette debate to hear both sides of the issue before they decide if and how to change the county's e-cigarette policy in the future.

E-cigarette “vaping” is now explicitly allowed in Sedgwick County buildings. That includes courtrooms, the county jail, tax offices and even public health clinics.

Sedgwick County commissioners voted to approve the policy at a meeting Monday night in Derby. It passed 3-2, with commission members Tim Norton and Dave Unruh dissenting.

“I think we need to get over it,” said Jim Howell, chairman of the commission, who first brought up the issue to the commission in November. “These are not cigarettes, these are not tobacco, it’s water vapor.”

The contents and effects of that vapor are subjects that are being hotly debated.

“The controversy itself is probably enough to justify us holding off on this,” Unruh said at the meeting.

E-cigarettes are electronic devices with a cartridge and heater that vaporize liquid nicotine. They are currently unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Your policy makers may want to consider the fact that electronic cigarettes are not currently regulated, so they’re trying to write public policy for an unregulated substance,” said Michael Weaver, medical director of the Center for Neurobehavorial Research on Addiction at the University of Texas in Houston.

The move to allow e-cigarettes goes against the overall trend around the nation to ban them.

The county’s tobacco policy didn’t previously address vaping. The new policy now clarifies that employees and customers can use unflavored e-cigarettes.

Each county department can set its own designated areas for customers and employees who want to vape indoors.

If a department wants to ban vaping, it will need to submit a letter that outlines a “business need” for the ban. But employees of those departments can then ask for their own exemptions to vape if their department bans it.

Controversial decision

County employees now are able to puff on e-cigarettes while waiting in line or while helping residents.

Howell, who said he does not use tobacco products or e-cigarettes, said he expects that department managers at customer-oriented offices, such as the tag office or appraiser’s office, will place restrictions on use when employees are helping customers.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau, who voted in favor of the policy, emphasized that e-cigarettes are not tobacco products.

“Unfortunately, I think many people in the public health arena have been very close-minded on this issue,” he said.

Potential for long-term effects from e-cigarettes are still unclear because the product has existed for only about 10 years, so research is not yet definitive.

But opponents of indoor e-cigarette use argue that the Clean Indoor Air Act works to protect nonsmokers rather than smokers.

Sean Gore, chairman of the Oklahoma Vapor Advocacy League and owner of vape shops in Oklahoma City, spoke at a county commission meeting in November, when Howell hosted a debate about e-cigarettes.

Sedgwick County commissioners hosted an e-cigarette debate to hear both sides of the issue before they decide if and how to change the county's e-cigarette policy in the future.

His argument emphasized e-cigarettes as a smoking-cessation tool.

That’s Howell’s primary justification for allowing employees to use e-cigarettes – to improve the health of smokers by promoting the use of e-cigarettes.

“The politically correct thing to do is ban these because it’s easy,” Howell said.

Becky Tuttle, project manager for Health ICT, an initiative that aims to reduce and prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, said there are better ways to quit smoking – through medication and nicotine gum and patches – all of which are approved by the FDA and backed by research.

Weaver, the medical director from Houston, has published research and clinical articles about e-cigarettes. He agrees that electronic cigarettes are not designed or marketed for smoking cessation.

“They’re designed for tobacco smokers to continue to get their nicotine fix in places they’re not allowed to smoke,” he said.

“It’s actually an incentive to continue smoking as opposed to quit smoking.”

“Electronic cigarette vapors are safer than tobacco smoke, but not as safe as air,” Weaver said.

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

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