City Council not likely to buy “to vape is not to smoke” argument in new ordinance

As the Missoula City Council considers updates to its smoking ordinance, it’s unlikely that it will include an exemption for vape shops, despite the industry’s effort to convince council members otherwise.

Members of the Missoula City Council continued debate around a proposed ordinance that would ban the use of e-cigarettes in indoor public places, though no decision was reached and won’t be in the near future.

When that day comes, however, it’s unlikely that the ordinance under consideration will include an exemption for vape shops, despite the industry’s effort to convince council members otherwise.

“By not allowing testing and by not allowing us to show our customers how to properly use a device, you’re basically putting vapers who are trying to quit smoking back out with the smokers,” said Keith Bowman, part owner of a Missoula vape store. “Vapor has more in common with a cloud or steam. To vape is not to smoke.”

Despite his testimony, Bowman found himself on the opposing side of the argument, with the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the Missoula City-County Health Department taking an opposite stand.

Ellen Leahy, director of the health department, cautioned the City Council about offering exemptions to the city’s vape shops. While the intent may be good spirited, she said, it would bring about bad consequences.

“What we’re trying to do is protect the indoor air for anyone who breathes it, including the employees,” said Leahy. “It goes back to the whole business of being special. We went through this with the bars and casinos.”

Missoula was the first city in Montana to adopt an ordinance banning smoking in indoor public places in 1999. After lengthy and contentious debate, the Montana Legislature adopted its own statewide restrictions in 2005, banning indoor smoking in most public places.

Four years later, the state expanded the restrictions to include bars and taverns. Leahy said that as e-cigarettes begin to fall under similar restrictions, the city would be wrong to grant an exemption to vape shops.

It’s nearly the same argument that played out more than a decade ago, though Missoula has already fallen behind the curve. At least eight other Montana counties have banned vaping indoors.

“That’s the underlying intent here – to protect the indoor breathing space for anyone who goes in there,” Leahy said. “When you exempt a business with what you believe is a good intent, the negative effect is to exempt employees from getting that protection.”

The proposed ordinance up for consideration would ban the use of electronic cigarettes in indoor public places and give business owners the ability to restrict tobacco smoking within 25 feet of their entryways or vents.

While the ordinance went before the City Council last week for passage, it was sent back to committee with questions that were mostly answered Wednesday by health officials.

Over the past few days, they found that two Missoula vape shops were in violation of the law by offering free vaping samples. They also found that several stores lacked a ventilation system capable of filtering out potentially hazardous air resulting from vaping indoors.

None had a smoking shelter.

“The exemption for vapor shops makes me nervous,” said Amanda Cahill of the American Heart and Stroke associations. “Allowing exemptions opens up our excellent clean indoor air act to a lot of legal issues and potential for weakening of the act in general throughout Montana.”

While a majority of the City Council present at Wednesday’s meeting expressed opposition to an exemption for vape shops, no vote was taken. The issue will be held in committee as comments are given a closer look for tone and content.

“It’s worth mentioning that what we do on council is and should be a deliberative process,” said council president Bryan von Lossberg. “I’m interested in getting it right and not rushing the process.”

The council will revisit the issue at a date to be determined.