As expected, the Los Angeles City Council today voted unanimously to ban vaping everywhere that smoking is banned, including indoor workplaces and outdoor locations such as parks, beaches, and restaurant patios. Although one of the main rationales for the ban is that children might confuse e-cigarettes with the real thing and mistakenly conclude that smoking is not so bad after all, an amendment that would have exempted bars and other establishments that are open only to adults was defeated by a vote of 8 to 6. In a generous concession, the city will allow people to vape in vaping lounges, in e-cigarette stores, and on stage for "theatrical purposes."
Judging from the account in the Los Angeles Times, the debate over the ordinance was dominated by non sequiturs:
Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who pushed for the new restrictions, spoke of his unhappiness at breathing secondhand smoke during his days as a waiter in the early 1990s….
Council President Herb Wesson, in the most passionate speech of the day, described his decades-long addiction to cigarettes, a habit he told his colleagues would almost certainly kill him one day.
Wesson said he began smoking because he wanted to be cool.
"When you're 15, you want to be cool," he said. "And I will not support anything—anything—that might attract one new smoker."
What if the thing that "might attract one new smoker" already has helped thousands of smokers quit a habit that was threatening their health and their lives? Why do these actual people count for nothing in Wesson's calculus, while the hypothetical person attracted to smoking by vaping has the power to move legislation? And what on earth does O'Farrell's distaste for secondhand smoke have to do with a product that generates none?
Here is what passed for scientific guidance at the council meeting:
"Safer does not mean safe," Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county's public health director, told the council. "Although they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, some e-cigarettes contain some health risks."
Fielding is absolutely right: Safer does not mean safe. But safer does mean safer—in this case, given the absence of tobacco and combustion, much safer. So why is the Los Angles City Council taking steps to discourage smokers from switching to a far less hazardous source of nicotine? For the children:
Foes of e-cigarettes said they threaten to make smoking socially acceptable after years of public opinion campaigns to discourage the habit. Young people who get hooked on the nicotine in e-cigarettes may then turn to tobacco use, said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
"We don't want to risk e-cigarettes undermining a half-century of successful tobacco control," he said.
It is rather mysterious how that would happen, since the main selling point of e-cigarettes is that they are much less dangerous and disgusting than the conventional kind. Nor is there any evidence that vaping is a gateway to smoking. But politicians do not need evidence when they've got the precautionary principle.