Atlanta weighs crackdown on e-cigarettes as part of smoking ban

Tuesday, May 21, 2019 @ 5:27 PM
By Alexis Stevens - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gone are the days of being asked “Smoking or non-smoking,” when entering a restaurant. Smoking is now banned on airplanes, in malls, movie theaters and countless other public places.

Now, a new generation has turned to technology for its fix. Electronic cigarettes produce a nicotine-filled aerosol that users inhale. And they are particularly popular among young people, with more than 3.6 million U.S. middle and high school students admitting to “vaping” within the previous 30 days in 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Whether it’s cigarette smoke or e-cigarette vapors, the majority of the states in the U.S. have banned it in public, passing smoke-free air laws. Georgia lags behind. But the City of Atlanta is considering doing its part by banning smoking and vaping in the public places where it’s still allowed.

“This city is home to the American Cancer Society and the CDC and the busiest airport in the world,” Matt Westmoreland, Atlanta City Council member told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think it’s important for the city to send a message that we know the dangers of second-hand smoke, as well as e-cigarettes.”

While the smoke-free air law has the support of health experts, others argue that the e-cigarette industry is being unfairly targeted.

Smoking ban “long overdue”

Many southern states haven’t passed smoke-free laws, according to Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine for the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

“Georgia is definitely a laggard state for tobacco,” Glantz said. “Georgia is even lagging behind Southern states.”

And that applies to the new breed of e-cigarettes, as well.

In more progressive areas of the country, Glantz said, government leaders treat e-cigarettes just like regular cigarettes.

“Smoke is smoke,” Glantz said.

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If Atlanta’s proposed ordinance passes, it would do the same, redefining “smoking” to include e-cigarettes. It would eliminate smoking lounges at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and make all restaurants and bars in the city of Atlanta smoke-free indoors. Exempt from the ban would be cigar bars and hookah lounges that meet a threshold of tobacco sales.

The proposed ordinance includes banning smoking in any enclosed public area including hotels, motels, stores, offices, public transit, restrooms and parking structures. It would also prohibit smoking within five feet of those buildings’ entrances, windows and ventilation systems. Want to smoke? You’d have to do so in your own home or vehicle under the proposal.

On Wednesday, the Atlanta City Council will hear from various smoking experts, including former U.S. Surgeon General and Morehouse College professor David Satcher, during a work session, Westmoreland said.

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Other metro cities, including Milton and Marietta, have also moved to crack down on e-cigarettes. In March, the Milton City Council amended its zoning code to block any businesses opening that have “alternative nicotine products or vape juice” as more than 25 percent of its retail sales. Marietta banned e-cigarettes from being used at public parks and government facilities at a council meeting last month.

Cigarette smoking “no longer cool”

An estimated 34 million adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes, according to the CDC, despite massive efforts to educate the public on the dangers of second-hand smoke. Smoking has declined from 20.9% (nearly 21 of every 100 adults) in 2005 to 14.0% in 2017, CDC numbers show. But the number of smokers has dropped, with some turning to e-cigarettes as an alternative.

“Because of all those decades of efforts to combat cigarette smoking, we have established a social norm where cigarette smoking is considered not cool,” according to Jidong Huang, a Georgia State University associate professor of health management and policy.

“But at the same time, we’ve seen a surge in electronic cigarettes, especially among young adults.”

Even marijuana, though illegal in Georgia and most states, is seen as more socially acceptable, Glantz said.

“Here we have tobacco, which is perfectly legal but it’s falling out of favor socially,” he said. “Marijuana is illegal, it’s socially sanctioned, and use is increasing.”

But while e-cigarettes are seen as a somewhat healthier option than traditional cigarettes, that’s not necessarily the case. Few studies have looked at the long-term consequences of e-cigarettes, Huang said, adding that attitudes toward vaping are now beginning to change.

“More Americans now believe e-cigarettes are more harmful or as harmful combustible cigarettes,” Huang said.

The CDC warns that nicotine is highly addictive, and e-cigarettes may contain other harmful substances. Nicotine can harm adolescent brain development, and young people who use e-cigarettes may be more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future, according to the CDC.

Is vaping the same as smoking?

But e-cigarettes represent a big industry in metro Atlanta, with dozens of “vape” shops that are now fixtures in shopping centers. Team Vape, just off the Marietta Square, opened about three years ago, according to Alex Toh, the assistant manager. The shop carries over 80 flavors of vaping liquid, he said. The shop does not carry pipes or any items needed for tobacco smoking, and customers must be 18 to enter.

Because there’s no smoke involved, it’s a healthier choice, Toh said. Vaping is being unfairly lumped in with traditional cigarette smoking, he said.

“These government politicians say they’re so concerned about public health,” Toh said. “What it really boils down to is money because they’re not getting the tax dollars like they do on alcohol and tobacco.”

He’s not completely against banning public vaping, however. And Toh says bans won’t hurt business because e-cigarette users still can vape elsewhere.

“It gives us a negative image,” Toh said. “There’s people out there blowing these crazy clouds and kids are out on the sidewalk.”

Health experts, smokers and vapers can agree on one thing. If it’s possible to avoid both, that is the healthiest option.

“If I had a teenager, if he was going to sneak around and smoke, I’d rather him sneak around and vape,” Toh said. “I’d rather him not do either, but if he’s going to do it, I’d rather him vape.”