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Fischer's Dedication To Public Health Questioned During Smoking Ban Debate

e-cigarette vaping
Creative Commons

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's dedication to improving health standards in the city is being questioned as he pushes to add electronic cigarettes and hookah to the city's smoking ban.

A Metro Council committee called a special meeting Thursday to discuss a proposal that would amend the city's smoking ordinance to include electronic cigarettes and hookah.

Fischer has called the surge in electronic cigarette and hookah use “a dangerous shift” from traditional cigarettes.

Local health department officials have said adding electronic cigarettes and hookah to the city's smoking ordinance “will act to protect Louisville Metro’s clean air standards, protect against secondhand exposure to harmful chemicals, and improve enforcement efforts.”

But councilwoman Cindi Fowler, a Democrat from southwest Louisville, questioned why Fischer's administration is pushing to amend the city's smoking ban while some factories in Louisville "continue to spew large amounts of dangerous carcinogens on families."

Fowler said the Air Pollution Control Board, which is under Fischer's direction, will likely soon approve exemptions to American Synthetic Rubber to loosen requirements related to the release of toxic chemicals into the air.

"That plant has been there a long time, killing people," Fowler said. "And we are just going to ignore it?"

Late Thursday afternoon, Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter said, "The mayor and his team are deeply committed to improving the city's health — that's why we are pursuing adding e-cigs to the smoking ban."

Matt Rhodes, deputy director for the city's health department, responded to Fowler during Thursday's meeting, saying her comment wasn't "relevant to this discussion."

"We came here today prepared to talk about the ill-effects of e-cigs and hookah," he said.

Rhodes added that health officials "haven't had time" to study issues related to the proposed exemptions for American Synthetic Rubber.

Other council members have also called attention to the APCD's proposal to approve the request to modify the requirements related to the release of toxic chemicals from the plant in southwest Louisville.

Councilwoman Jessica Green said it'd be a "slap in the face" to residents who live near the plant to approve the modification, according to a recent report from The Courier-Journal.

And on Thursday, Green criticized the disproportionate reaction by city officials to the smoking ban compared with the exemption requested by American Synthetic Rubber.

"Much time and effort has been spent attempting to legislate morality and telling grown consenting adults why they should not smoke e-cigarettes or hookah in establishments that they choose to be in," Green said on her Facebook page.

"The dog and pony shows and publicity stunts have to stop," she added. "Stand up for the people who really need protection."

Public input is being accepted until mid-may on the Air Pollution Control District's proposal to approve the requested modification.

No Action Taken

As for the proposal to amend the city's smoking ban, the council committee took no action during their Thursday meeting. Instead, they heard nearly 50 minutes of testimony from supporters of the ban and smoking advocates against the push.

Paul Kiser, associate professor at Bellarmine University, presented the findings of a recent report he conducted on electronic cigarettes and hookah in which he supported Fischer's push to amend the smoking ordinance.

"What we're doing is working to denormalize these products," he said. "That's been one of the most effective tools we've been able to use in the war on tobacco in this country."

Denormalization, he said, makes the act of smoking "not cool" and therefore leads to less people wanting to smoke tobacco or nicotine products.

Keith Hadley, co-founder of the Kentucky Smoke Free Association, said the proposed amendment needs an exemption for certain businesses that specialize in selling electronic cigarettes and hookah products.

He said the ordinance, as written, would hurt local businesses and such an exemption would allow customers to test products before they buy and reduce the prohibitive nature of the original proposal.

"It's a good industry with the right intentions," he said.

The city's current smoke-free ordinancetook effect in January 2008 and banned smoking in buildings open to the public and establishments in which people work. The ordinance defines smoking as "the act of inhaling or exhaling the smoke from any lighted cigarette, cigar or pipe or other combustible tobacco product."

Committee members will continue considering the proposal and reconvene next month.

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.