E-cigarette use has exploded in popularity in recent years, prompting public health officials to propose new rules to restrict its use in public spaces to cut down on secondhand smoke. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After over a year of consideration, New Hanover County is prepared to take action on a proposed e-cigarette and smoking ban in “public places.”

Scaling back initially proposed requirements, the new rule — should commissioners vote in favor of it — will ban smoking and vaping in all bars, restaurants, and other private and public areas accessible to the general public.

Related: New Hanover considering revised prohibition on smoking and e-cigarettes in nearly all public places

Violators could be charged a $50 civil penalty, with the option that law enforcement officers first issue a verbal warning. Three-time repeat offenders in charge of managing banned spaces could be fined $200. If it’s an e-cigarette offense, the penalty could be charged as a misdemeanor (the same criminal penalty would not apply to smoking).

An earlier version of the rule was more expansive, and proposed a ban on vaping and smoking on public and private sidewalks accessible to the public. It has since been dropped.

A previous version also considered all nicotine products, including chewing tobacco, in the ban. References to nicotine-containing products have been removed, with the revised rule pertaining to any e-cigarette or lighted smoking product. This revision does include “any other substance” heated by an e-cigarette — a provision that CBD users take issue with.

The ban applies to all county, town, or city-owned venues in New Hanover, and most enclosed privately owned spaces accessible to the general public. Private residences, vehicles, smoke shops, and private clubs are exempt.

Overreach?

The public response to the county’s attempt to minimize public exposure to secondhand smoke from vaping and smoking has been deeply polarizing. Entrenched in the debate are competing goals of maintaining individual liberties — the freedom to maintain your health in a smoke-free environment vs. the freedom to use legal substances responsibly.

One faction of people find the proposal to be egregious government overreach, while the other would be glad to see smoking and vaping banned outright.

“Government often does overreach, and I fight against it when they do as often as I can,” Commissioner Woody White said Wednesday. “However, vaping is an unregulated product thrust upon the marketplace before any regulations were in place to warn people of the effects. I do recognize a significant harm reduction benefit to vaping when compared to smoking. But in weighing the overall interests involved, I support this regulation and will vote that way on Monday.”

Emad Almurisi, owner of Supreme Smoke Shop in University Commons, said he respects the proposal.

“I wouldn’t want somebody to do something nasty around me. If they think this is bad, if they don’t like seeing it, you’ve got to respect that, too,” he said.

Almurisi said he’d prefer to see other people respect one another without a rule in place, but understands why it may be necessary. Compared to cigarettes, Almurisi finds the vape smoke odor pleasant, and credits vaping as helping him quit Marlboros. “The best thing I did was quit that thing,” he said of smoking cigarettes. Though, he also admitted he thinks vaping is less harmful than smoking, and he still wishes he wasn’t reliant on the addictive chemical.

“Nicotine is an addicting thing—and if you’re stuck with it, you’re stuck with it,” he said. “And I wish I’d never started it.”

The reason for the ban

The proposal to ban vaping and smoking in many public and private spaces arose out of an October 2019 New Hanover Health and Human Services Board recommendation.

It aims to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke and disincentivize nicotine use, which is known to cause adverse health effects in both smokers and nonsmokers. In 2010, N.C. enacted the Smoke-Free Restaurants and Bars Law, which prohibited indoor smoking in many establishments. The law authorized local governments to pass more restrictive requirements to prohibit smoking in public places, defined as “an enclosed area to which the public is invited or in which the public is permitted.”

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control. A 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s report concluded there is no risk-free exposure level to secondhand smoke; secondhand smoke can cause cancer, heart disease, acute respiratory effects, and adverse health outcomes in children and infants.

E-cigarette use has exploded in recent years, increasing 900% among high school students between 2011 and 2015, according to a 2016 U.S. Surgeon General’s report. The report acknowledges the health effects of “heated and aerosolized constituents of constituents of e-cigarette liquids—including solvents, flavorants, and toxicants—are not completely
understood.” It also recognized that e-cigarettes generally emit fewer toxicants compared to cigarettes; however, vaping is not harmless.

It found vapor contains heavy metals, volatile compounds, and other toxins known to cause adverse health effects. “The health impacts of frequent exposure to the toxicants in e-cigarette aerosol are not well understood, though several are known carcinogens,” according to the report.

Early on, the county faced questions from surrounding municipalities regarding enforcement.

Health director Philip Tarte explained last year the county had no plans to hire a new crew of e-cig police to enforce the rule. Instead, he hoped to see individuals and businesses self-police themselves.

“The point of the policy isn’t solely to be punitive — although that aspect is there if we need it — but we want it to part of the rule, the options to help quit smoking are put out there,” he said. “We want something that isn’t just punitive but assists people.”

Public response

Of the flood of public comments the county received, nearly half of the responses, about 135, opposed the proposed rule, with the other half writing to wholeheartedly support it.

A large portion of those opposed to the rule took specific issue with the sidewalk ban, which is no longer on the table.

Many public commenters, mostly anonymous, took issue with the perceived hypocritical enforcement or prioritization of regulating smokers over industrial polluters.

“We can’ t drink the water and you think that making me pay sales tax on a vehicle then you tax me AGAIN EVERY YEAR just to own the damned thing, and you have the right to tell me what I can do in the **** thing?” one commenter wrote.

Many took issue with the county’s proposal to criminalize behavior associated with an addiction — especially considering vaporized smoke is considered less harmful than smoke produced by combustible tobacco products, as e-cigarettes are widely used as a cessation device.

Several commenters compared the rules to the U.S.S.R. and questioned whether they were still living in the U.S.

“What’s next perfume?” one commenter asked.

“I thought this was AMERICA!!!!!!” another questioned.

Just as many commenters lent their full support to the ban, with a majority asking the county to go even further. Residents with children, pre-existing conditions, or no stated health issues raised concerns about experiencing secondhand smoke in public.

“Someone’ s right to damage their own health by smoking, whether by electronic cigarettes or conventional, ends in public spaces where all of the rest of us live, work, and breath!” one commenter wrote.

Wilmington resident Donna Moffitt hit on the same point. “As a freedom- loving patriot, I say protect my rights not to be subjected to the above,” she wrote.

Vote Monday

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners will consider adopting the new rule Monday, Nov. 16, at their regular meeting which begins at 4 p.m.

If approved, it will take effect Jan. 31, 2021, following an implementation period.

The new rule bans smoking and vaping in the following locations:

  • Any county, town, or city:
    • Buildings, vehicles, grounds, parks, trails, playgrounds, bus stops, etc. 
  • Childcare facilities 
  • Malls
  • Elevators
  • Polling places
  • Public restrooms
  • Restaurants
  • Bars 
  • Retail stores
  • Galleries, libraries, and museums
  • Theaters, entertainment and sports arenas
  • Gaming facilities
  • Lobbies, hallways, and other common areas in apartment buildings, condos, retirement facilities, nursing homes, and other multi-unit residential facilities
  • Office and other commercial establishments where the public is invited, or permitted

The following locations are exempt from the rule:

  • A private residence 
  • A private vehicle 
  • A smoking and e-cigarette shop if smoke of vapor from the business does not migrate into an enclosed area where use is banned 
  • All premises owned, operated, or leased by smoking or e-cigarette product manufacturer 
  • A designated smoking or e-cigarette guest room in a lodging establishment. No more than 20% of rooms in the establishment may be designated as such.
  • A cigar bar 
  • A private club
  • A film set, applicable only to the performer during production
  • A public area only when group therapeutic rehabilitation is conducted pursuant to a state-recognized program

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at [email protected]

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