When city officials announced a sweeping ban on smoking in public parks last month, many in Houston’s growing ranks of electronic cigarette users worried the new rules applied to them.
They do not, but the concern was well-founded. Of the country’s five most populous cities, Houston is the only one without a ban on where the devices can be used. There is not enough research on the relatively new, battery-powered plastic or metal tubes thatheat liquid nicotine to know their medical effects, leading many cities to preemptively ban them and others to watch how the national debate plays out. For now, Houston is in the latter group.
E-cigarettes emit a water vapor, rather than actual smoke. While most health officials agree using e-cigarettes, known as “vaping,” is less harmful than traditional smoking, many have raised concerns about whether the devices reduce or actually lead to conventional smoking. Other unknowns include precisely what chemicals the water vapor contains and whether bystanders absorb any nicotine.
Even as Houston has expanded its general smoking restrictions, officials have been hands-off with the controversial devices. The city smoking ordinance does not contemplate e-cigarettes.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker said it is not something the administration is looking to change, largely because e-cigarettes are not considered a tobacco product.
The American Lung Association’s Houston chapter, however, is advocating for the city take the approach of other large urban areas and ban them in the same places as regular cigarettes while the health risks remain unknown.
Some city officials, too, are keen on broaching the issue. Council member Jack Christie, a chiropractor with strong opinions on health policy, said he would like to see restrictions on e-cigarettes in public places, voicing concern about the potential effects of second-hand vapor. Council member Ellen Cohen, chair of the Council’s Quality of Life Committee, also has concerns about second-hand vapor and said she would like to see more federal guidance before considering whether to include them in the city’s smoking ordinance.
“There’s are a lot of things that Houston doesn’t just throw out regulations on,” Christie said. “We let other cities experiment and see what works. And I’m not for over-regulation, but if it helps innocent people, and I think this would, we should do it.”
In a letter to the Federal Drug Administration this spring, city health department Director Stephen Williams joined the heads of major metropolitan agencies across the country in asking for tougher regulations on the e-cigarettes. The FDA has proposed some rules, but has yet to enact any.
“E-cigarettes pose a potential risk to public health and FDA should act with all deliberate speed to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products,” the letter said.
The issue of what, if anything, local governments should do to regulate e-cigarettes is a political and public health conundrum. Unlike regular cigarettes, there is not a compelling argument to be made about litter, one of the main reasons behind the recent expansion of Houston’s public smoking ban to city parks.
And with relatively little research to go on, cities have been faced with limiting the use of a product that many people claim has helped them quit traditional smoking.
Beth Stevenson, who works in Houston, said she spent 16 years trying to quit smoking before she found e-cigarettes. She has not smoked regular cigarettes in a year since she started using the e-cigarettes.
Because e-cigarettes mirror the physical experience of smoking, the rote hand-to-mouth gesture Stevenson finds comforting, they have worked better for her than nicotine patches.
“Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who walks through the mall with my e-cig,” Stevenson said. “I tend to gravitate toward more private places. But a ban on where you do it sends the wrong signal, that somehow e-cigarettes are the same as smoking. They’re not.”
It is that narrative that concerns Ronald Peters, an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Peters, who specializes in behavioral science and health promotion, said the view of e-cigarettes as the “safe” cigarettes when there is no long-term research on their effects is misleading.
Peters did a recent study on e-cigarette use among kids. One of the reasons kids get hooked, he said, is the relative ease of using them in public places.
“I’m not saying whether or not it’s a better alternative to smoking,” Peters said. “But this is a potential gateway to nicotine addiction.”
While the medical world looks to churn out more research on e-cigarettes, a variety of city bans have taken shape.
In Chicago, they are not allowed in indoor public places. In New York, the e-cigarette ban is an extension of its existing smoking ban, including beaches and parks. In Los Angeles, they are banned in restaurants, bars and other public spaces, though they are allowed in lounges or e-cigarette stores for use in film or theatre.
In Houston, resident Oliver Bludworth said, e-cigarettes users should self-regulate where they smoke.
Bludworth, 30, has a story much like Stevenson’s: He said he was able to kick his smoking habit when he tried e-cigarettes eight months ago.
There is an etiquette to using them, he said.
“I don’t use them anywhere I wouldn’t smoke,” he said. “Don’t be rude.”