Lawmakers should allow indoor sampling of ‘vaping’ products: Editorial

Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago in April 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

 When she signed House Bill 2546 last month, Gov. Kate Brown gave her blessing to a well-intended overreach. The new law appropriately bars the sale of “vaping” devices and liquids to people under the age of 18, and if the legislation had stopped there no one would have had cause for complaint. Shaped by a desire to treat vaping just like smoking, however, the legislation included an indoor-use ban that applies even to vape shops, whose owners have cried foul. They have a point, and the Legislature owes both them and their customers better.

Indoor smoking bans are, of course, intended to protect bystanders from other people’s fumes, but they are not absolute. Oregon law allows smoking in cigar bars and certified smoke shops. Cigar bars must have liquor licenses and prohibit access to anyone under 21, but may permit patrons to fire up their stogies to their hearts’ content. Smoke shops may receive the state’s blessing to operate as long as they derive at least 75 percent of their revenue from the sale of smoking-related products, bar access to anyone under 18 and allow smoking only for product-sampling purposes.

And vape shops? Nada.

Beginning next year, in-store vaping – even for product-sampling purposes – will be prohibited. So opposed are many legislators to vaping that HB2546 explicitly prohibits the use of vaping products at certified smoke shops. Patrons, then, may light up cancer sticks, but not a product even the American Heart Association – no cheerleader for vaping – acknowledges is “likely to be much less toxic than cigarette smoking.”

The value of vaping as an alternative to smoking is one reason lawmakers ought to allow in-store sampling. Ron Sather, secretary of the Northwest Vapor Association, owns NW Freedom Vape in Salem. “We carry about 80 flavors, and not every flavor appeals to everybody,” he says. Each flavor, meanwhile, is available with various nicotine levels, necessitating a certain amount of trial and error for all customers, but particularly smokers looking to replace a terribly unhealthy habit with a very different experience. Yet beginning next year, the law will ban this, perversely placing a barrier between smokers and a less-damaging product.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, co-sponsor of HB2546, dismisses the concerns of vape-shop owners and justifies the indoor-use ban as a way of protecting employees and customers in adjacent properties with shared ventilation systems from vaping fumes. To assume that such vapors in low concentrations present a health threat to people in adjacent businesses is to stretch the bounds of credibility. As for banning the practice because the owners of some adjacent businesses might object to the smell, would the Legislature so cavalierly apply this standard to any other business? Doubtful.

Fortunately, an opportunity for compromise is possible. It’s Senate Bill 663, which would require businesses selling tobacco and vaping products to be licensed with the state. The bill, a “gut and stuff,” originally contained very different language, but has been repurposed and shipped from committee to committee. Its most recent home is the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, where a fight is happening over an exemption to the indoor-use ban contained in HB2546. The vaping industry would like a one year grace period during which indoor sampling could continue in shops that prohibit access to anyone younger than 18.

This proposal is entirely reasonable and echoes the state’s treatment of certified smoke shops. Yet committee chair Mark Hass, a reputedly moderate Democrat from Beaverton, is having none of it. HB2546 “would have been the place to get an exemption or not,” he said Monday. Besides, he says, it seems “inappropriate” to use a licensing bill as a vehicle for “an unrelated issue.” Did we mention that the supposedly pure licensing bill is a gut and stuff? Speaking of unrelated issues …

Hass says he’s promised to introduce a bill next session that would allow indoor sampling of vaping products. That’s a dodge. By the time lawmakers even considered such a bill, indoor sampling would have been prohibited and the consequences felt by legitimate businesses and their customers, including smokers who want to quit. There is no compelling public purpose for such a disruption, which would create a regulatory scheme in which state law restricted vaping even more tightly than cigarette or cigar smoking.

There is no other word for that than nuts.

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