By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog
OKLAHOMA CITY — Those who love to “vape” — enjoy a non-tobacco electronic smoking device, or e-cigarette — are waging a battle for tolerance in an eastern Oklahoma town.
They are fighting anti-tobacco groups, including the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, and powerful interests pressing for local ordinances to lump e-cigarettes into the same category as tobacco products.
The city of Tahlequah is considering an ordinance fashioning a stricter ban on public use of tobacco anywhere on city property, including parks and other open areas. Intense debate over the draft ordinance has erupted over the inclusion of “vapor” products, as a Monday special meeting of the city council nears.
Sean Gore, chairman of the Oklahoma Vapor Advocacy League, said his group — a business association for vendors of e-cigarettes and other electronic smoking devices — spent hours preparing and suggesting alternative language that was submitted to city officials, including a sympathetic-sounding Mayor Jason Nichols.
Alternative ordinance proposals would ban sale of ESDs to minors, but allow their use by adults in the community.
In an interview with Oklahoma Watchdog, Gore said he remains hopeful that a compromise might emerge.
“They started out with a very flawed ordinance in Tahlequah. It could have been interpreted to ban even the private use of electronic smoking devices within the city limits,” said Gregory Conley, legislative director of Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association.
Conley told Oklahoma Watchdog he is impressed that in Oklahoma, unlike some states, “the news media is paying attention, and that is helping in waking people up.”
“It was fascinating to watch the city evolve from an absolutely dreadful ordinance idea toward, possibly, what you could call at least ‘less insane’ decisions,” he said.
Discussion at a Nov. 4 council meeting revealed that the TSET encouraged the Cherokee County Communities of Excellence Tobacco Control program to wrap e-cigarettes in with tobacco.
Val Dobbins, chairman of the county program, said TSET sent down “these ordinances and they ask us to propose (them) in the cities,” according to a report in the Tahlequah Daily Press.
“First thing off the bat, in order for us to be certified healthy at the ‘excellent’ level for a city, the first thing they ask us for is to add e-cigarettes, or electronic smoking devices, to our ordinances that have to do with tobacco,” Dobbins said.
At stake is at least $42,000 in prospective grant funding from TSET.
However, that sum may understate the cash incentives for a ban.
John Yeutter, a certified public accountant and an associate professor of accounting at Northeastern State University, told officials the county program’s own online reports identified TSET grants totaling $146,9987 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012.
“Recent news of the tactics of bureaucrats associated with the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust Fund should concern all Oklahomans,” said Jonathan Small, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the state’s largest free-market and limited-government think tank.
“It’s alarming, their use of taxpayer dollars to influence citizens and local communities into banning safe and effective alternatives to traditional smoking products,” Small said. “Their recent actions demonizing and profiling e-cigarettes are yet more evidence of the need for strict oversight and a complete overhaul of TSET and its activities.
“TSET should be about real and lasting solutions for health care, not the selective discriminatory efforts of biased bureaucrats. It is time for citizens and lawmakers to reform the current operations of TSET.”
Gore said a local ban on sales of ESDs to youth is sensible, but believes such efforts aimed at adults are wrong-headed. He told the Tahlequah City Council on Nov. 4 that it’s all about the money.
“This has nothing to do with health,” he said. “(W)hat happens to these health organizations? They lose their funding.”
In a meeting with Cherokee County Republican activists on Monday, Mayor Jason Nichols said he is “not a fan of tobacco, but this is a totally different ball game.” He said there is not enough data to show ESDs are dangerous to anyone. Nichols said residents have “the equivalent of a right to do that, in the absence of harm to anyone else.”
This video captures Nichols’ exchange with Republican critics of the proposed ban on ESDs.
In response to a direct question from the audience about his views on the ordinance, Nichols said he was leaning toward a no vote. He said the ordinance to be considered on Monday will be less draconian in impact.
Contact Patrick McGuigan at [email protected] .