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Washington, D.C. Goes Vape Unfriendly

Washington, D.C. has become the latest US district to bring in harsh restrictions on vapers’ rights. A tough package of anti-tobacco laws passed last week turns out to include a ban on vaping in any indoor public place where smoking is already banned.

The new laws, which have already been signed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, will make it illegal to vape in all bars, restaurants and workplaces. It could become law as early as January 2017, following a 30-day review period. D.C. vapers will still be able to puff away on outdoor patios, but enjoying your e-cigarette in a bar will become a thing of the past.

Officially the reason for the new law is to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking. Another provision of the law is an increase in the age for purchasing any tobacco product from 18 to 21. This is a growing trend across the USA, and it’s likely that in a few years smoking will have been brought into line with alcohol as something college students and junior members of the Armed Forces are too young to do.

That isn’t going to happen in D.C. right away, though. In fact, teenagers will probably still be able to buy cigarettes until nearly the end of next year. Before the new age limit can be approved, the District needs to find some way to replace the sales tax that’s currently paid by smokers aged between 18 and 21. It’s not a lot compared to D.C.’s $13 billion budget – just over a million dollars – but it does hint that protecting young people might not be the highest priority.

All about health?

When D.C. first banned smoking in workplaces and restaurants in 2006, then extended that to bars and nightclubs in 2007, the justification was that the law was needed to protect bystanders from secondhand smoke. There’s no doubt that many people find secondhand smoke annoying, and it contains a wide range of carcinogens, but the new laws don’t seem to have the same motivation.

Even following the stated rationale, to protect young people from tobacco, it’s hard to see how that’s helped by banning vaping in bars. Under-21s aren’t allowed in bars, so they wouldn’t see any vapers who happened to be in there enjoying a beer. They’ll certainly see them standing outside the door beside the smokers, though. The effect of Mayor Bowser’s new ban will be to increase the number of vapers young people see.

Another provision that’s raised some eyebrows is a ban on chewing tobacco at sporting events. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has been pushing for this on the grounds that many youths see baseball players as positive role models and might start using chewing tobacco if they see players using it. There’s little evidence to show that this is a real problem, but obviously, CTFK can’t claim there’s any health reason for banning chew.

Obviously, the same applies to electronic cigarettes: Repeated studies have found that “secondhand vapor” has no noticeable health risks at all. The real purpose of that ban seems to be nothing more than making it as hard as possible to vape. Again the justification is protecting young people, despite all the evidence showing that teens who regularly vape are almost exclusively current or ex-smokers.

Not all bad?

There are some potential bright spots for vapers in the new legislation. The law specifically bans vaping in places where smoking is already banned, and there are some exemptions built in to the original smoking ban. For example, you can smoke in a store if tobacco products account for at least 75% of its revenue. Unless something changes, that means you can also vape in a vape shop. There are also some cigar bars in D.C. which have a similar exemption, so if you don’t mind sharing your space with cigar smokers you don’t have to stand outside to vape.

Not all D.C. legislators are fully behind the new law. The council chairman voted against increasing the age limit, arguing that it makes no sense to impose bans on people who’re old enough to vote, join the military or run for office. Others pressed for a reduction in the fine imposed on underage smokers and vapers, cutting it from $50 to $25. Sadly, while there was some opposition, it wasn’t enough; Washington, D.C. has joined the list of places where you’re not free to vape.

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