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Register-Guard: Lawmakers Study E-Cigarettes

Facing little opposition, Oregon lawmakers appear set to bar minors from purchasing electronic cigarettes this session, as 27 other states already have done.

But a broader bill that would pair that effort with a ban on the indoor use of the products in most public places and in workplaces, as is the case with conventional tobacco use, faced plenty of opposition at an initial hearing this week.

The use of electronic cigarettes, known as “vaping” because nicotine is delivered to users through vapor rather than tobacco smoke, has grown rapidly in the past few years, with more stores selling the battery-powered devices and the flavored liquids that are vaporized.

Rep. Phil Barnhart, a Eugene Democrat who is championing the broader bill, House Bill 4115, said he believes that e-cigarettes are “beguiling devices,” particularly for teenagers, who are more likely to become addicted to nicotine. Barnhart added that, because the vapor e-cigarettes release contains nicotine and chemicals, nonusers “at work, in classrooms, or in the airport waiting room” should be protected from exposure as they are from tobacco smoke.

Adelle Adams, a Multnomah County health official, said the ban in public places is “a critical piece” in helping prevent young people from becoming hooked on nicotine.

“Without that inclusion, we’re creating an environment where `vaping’ is considered an acceptable behavior and could become an element of culture for youth,” she said.

But opponents of the public-space ban argued that there is no scientific evidence that the exhaled vapor poses a threat to others as secondhand tobacco smoke does.

“E-cigarette vapor as exhaled by the user does not contain any toxic chemicals that are detectable above background levels in indoor environments,” said Dr. Joel Nitzkin, a tobacco expert with R Street, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Several recent scientific studies of the issue show that e-cigarette vapor contains significantly less nicotine and carcinogens than tobacco smoke, although they also note that more research is needed.

A number of e-cigarette users and owners of new-trend vapor lounges argued that banning “vaping” in public spaces would stigmatize unfairly a product that has helped them quit cigarettes.

“Some of the science is up for question, but I know what it’s done for me,” said Timothy Schultz, a Portland resident who quit smoking a year ago. “I know I’d have family members who have died as a result of tobacco who’d be alive today if these products were around back then.”

Justin Newman, the co-founder of Emerald Vapors in Eugene, said the ban goes too far because “there is not enough evidence” about the risks of vapor exposure. “More time is needed for that research,” he said.

Under HB 4115, vapor lounges themselves could be exempt from the ban on indoor “vaping” if they meet certain criteria, much as some existing cigar bars or smoke shops that still can allow indoor smoking.

Barnhart said Wednesday that he’s willing to consider amendments to the bill under which demonstrations of how e-cigarettes work could be exempt from the public-space ban. That was an issue raised by some bill opponents.

But the clearly controversial policy still may face an uphill battle to approval in the five-week session.

Conversely, no one spoke in opposition Wednesday to House Bill 4073, which simply would ban the sale of e-cigarettes; it is co-sponsored by 43 lawmakers from both parties. Many vapor store owners said at the hearing they already don’t sell e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 18.

There are no federal regulations for e-cigarettes, in part because of a 2010 court ruling that required the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to classify them as tobacco products rather than as “drug delivery devices.”

That classification doesn’t require the FDA safety tests that would be mandated for products that claim to help people stop smoking, such as nicotine gum. However, the agency says it is considering possible regulations because e-cigarettes contain “highly addictive” nicotine.

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