By Jenny Neyman
As a bill that would prohibit smoking in workplaces statewide makes its way through the Legislature, the question of e-cigarettes has become a burning topic.
Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Kenai Sen. Peter Micciche, had a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday.
Half of Alaska already is covered by local smoke-free laws. The bill would extend similar, “take-it-outside coverage,” as Micciche calls it, to rest of the state, which is mostly the unincorporated areas outside of city jurisdiction.
“All this bill does is it asks smokers to take it outside while they’re at work,” Micciche said. “It’s just respect for their neighbor’s right to breathe clean air. This is not about folks that choose to smoke. If they choose to smoke, they have every right to continue to do that. We just ask them to not affect the rights of their friends at work.”
Micciche noted that more than 860 Alaskan businesses and organizations and hundreds more individuals have signed on in support of the bill, and a 2012 Dittman survey found that 82 percent of Alaskans agree that workers should be protected from second-hand smoke.
Micciche also acknowledged that the bill has drawn opposition, and that nearly all the hundreds of letters he’s received against the bill have specifically resisted including vaping and e-cigarettes in the smoking ban.
Chuck Kopp, a staffer for Micciche, said that e-cigarettes are included in the bill because of their still-ambiguous nature. The science is maturing regarding their possible health impacts. And while some have been shown to not negatively impact others with second-hand smoke, not all e-cigs are created equal.
“There are studies that show that because of the unregulated nature of the market, depending on the tool that is being used, you can have a significant amount of toxins, and ultrafine medical particles, volatile compounds and other carcinogens that become part of the vaping or aerosolized air. The biggest problem is that the FDA has not assumed regulation of them and there are over 470 different brands,” Kopp said.
Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire said that she’s heard from constituents who want e-cigarettes to be left alone.
“There have been some pretty personal emails from folks in my community that were at one point addicted to smoking nicotine through tobacco use and have found reprieve smoking e-cigarettes and feel it’s a health benefit to them and the people around them,” McGuire said.
Dr. Jay Butler, chief medical officer for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the jury’s still out on that issue.
“There is much that we still don’t know about e-cigarettes. … They’re not approved as tobacco-cessation instruments. We do have nicotine replacement therapy products that do that,” Butler said.
Another concern Butler noted is that it’s difficult to tell whether the liquid used in vaping or e-cigarettes is a nicotine liquid or a marijuana-derived THC liquid. Banning e-cigarettes and vaping, then, will also help in enforcing the prohibition on marijuana use in public places.
Finally, he said that he’s concerned the smoking devices normalize smoking behavior, especially targeting that message to youth, with flavors such as Candy Crush and Mountain Dew.
“I remain skeptical, and I think the better part of valor — and actually for ease of enforcement also — is to include e-cigarettes,” he said.
The Senate State Affairs Committee ran out of time to hear testimony Thursday, much less for members to debate the matter, so it has been rescheduled for 9 a.m. April 9. At which time, Micciche said, he’ll look forward to feedback.
“We’ll be listening to your comments, we’re open to suggestions, we want this to be the best bill it can be,” he said. “We want to impact businesses as little as possible, so we’re open to reasonable exemptions.”