This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Let’s dispense first with the easy call: The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department board absolutely should ban sales of battery-powered cigarettes to minors.
There exists no justifiable reason to allow teenagers ready access to any nicotine-delivery device – certainly not one that is designed to perpetuate a social ritual that preys on youthful insecurities and could create new smokers.
Cigarettes cannot be sold to those under 18 years of age, nor can over-the-counter nicotine patches and gum. Electronic cigarettes should be no different.
Now, for the tougher nut: whether to restrict adults’ use of the smoking alternative. The Board of Health is considering proposed regulations that would extend the ban on smoking in public places to e-smoking or “vaping.”
The health department, long a dogged foe of tobacco use, is treading new ground.
The agency’s courageous 2003 indoor smoke ban and its work since to enforce and extend restrictions on smokers has been based on clear evidence that smoking is a public health threat.
So too the state’s smoking ban, adopted by citizen initiative in 2005 after Pierce County’s ban was overturned in court.
The law was sold to voters as a matter of workplace safety. Secondhand smoke poses a demonstrable health risk to the waiters and bartenders forced to breathe smokers’ exhaust 40 hours a week.
But the jury is still out on electronic cigarettes. While no one argues that nicotine in any form is benign, the magnitude of harm – and how far its reach – remains an open question. All that researchers seem to agree on is that e-cigs are less dangerous than the real deal.
Health department officials argue that uncertainty about vaping’s toxins and toxicity makes the case for acting now to preempt possible ill effects.
Making public policy on the basis of unknown health risks is a tricky – and usually inadvisable – business. More compelling is the concern about losing ground in the fight against smoking.
The state smoking ban has helped dramatically reduce smoking rates. In 2000, about 35 percent of Pierce County adults smoked. In 2009, the number dropped to an all-time low of 17 percent.
That reduction is good news for public health and for taxpayers. The fewer smokers, the less society spends to treat their inevitable health problems.
The success in reducing smoking rates can be partially attributed to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. Smokers are huddled under an awning down the street these days, rather than puffing away at the bar.
Fake smokes, many of which look almost indistinguishable from real cigarettes, keep smoking in the public eye and help normalize the act of lighting up.
But then again, so do episodes of “Mad Men.”
The Board of Health will have to decide if the risk of eroding beneficial social norms outweighs the intrusion on personal behavior. At the outset, the scale is tipped in favor of the least restrictive approach.