County restricts sales, use of e-cigs

Benton County has joined Corvallis in extending current anti-smoking regulations to electronic cigarettes.

The Board of Commissioners voted 3 to 0 on Tuesday to approve revisions to Chapter 18 of the county code, which governs smoking in workplaces and enclosed public places.

Among other things, the new language adds electronic cigarettes to the list of tobacco products that can’t be used at work, in restaurants or other enclosed spaces where secondhand smoke might endanger the public. It also bans the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 21.

Both restrictions were approved inside the city limits by the Corvallis City Council last month and are slated to be considered by the Oregon Legislature. But e-cigs are not covered by the Oregon Indoor Clean Air Act, which has banned smoking in most enclosed public spaces since 2000 and was expanded in 2009.

“This is brand new for Oregon,” said Sara Hartstein, a health policy specialist with the Benton County Health Department. “They are discussing this at the state level, but we’re moving forward at the local level.”

Electronic cigarettes have come on the market recently as a more socially acceptable way to use tobacco. The battery-powered devices deliver nicotine in the form of vapor rather than smoke. Although they’re not yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, e-cigarettes have been shown in preliminary testing to produce toxic chemicals.

Locally, electronic cigarettes already have been barred from the grounds of Oregon State University, Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center and Benton County offices and parks, where no tobacco products are allowed.

And some area businesses decided not to wait until local ordinances changed to lower the boom on e-cigs. Clodfelter’s, a popular Corvallis bar and restaurant across the street from the OSU campus, banned the devices about a year ago.

“One reason we made a house policy is it does produce a vapor — there is an odor,” manager Gary Evans said. “We have a smoking porch out front; They can get their food and their cocktail out there and enjoy their e-cigs.”

Evans said little is known about the potential health risks of electronic cigarettes, and that makes him nervous about being exposed to the vapor.

“We just decided, to protect our customers and protect our staff, to go ahead and ban it.”

Hartstein has been meeting with representatives of area municipalities for two years to study ways to strengthen and standardize anti-tobacco rules countywide. Corvallis was the first to act, but she said the Philomath City Council is expected to take up the issue next month.

Another revision to the county code bans smoking in retail tobacco shops, closing what Hartstein called “an accidental loophole” in the state law that has allowed indoor smoking lounges to pop up in some parts of Oregon. A hookah bar operated briefly in Corvallis a few years ago, but otherwise the phenomenon has passed Benton County by — and the local anti-tobacco coalition wants to keep it that way.

“We currently do not have hookah bars, cigar bars or other types of smoking lounges in Benton County,” Hartstein said. “As other counties try to close this loophole at the local level, we wanted to prevent those types of businesses from picking up and moving to Benton County.”

Other changes to the city and county codes — such as a ban on smoking within 10 feet of a line of people standing outside a business — bring the local ordinances into line with existing state law.

“They just need to be updated so those laws can be enforced countywide,” Hartstein said.

The commissioners conducted a first reading of the amended ordinance on Tuesday. A second reading has been set for noon Feb. 18 in the county boardroom, 205 N.W. Fifth St., and the changes will take effect March 20.

In the meantime, the multijurisdictional tobacco coalition is preparing a proposal to modify the area’s retail tobacco license program.

Since 1997, businesses that sell tobacco products in Corvallis, Philomath or unincorporated areas of Benton County have been required to have a license, but Hartstein said the rules need updating.

One change being considered: Adding language requiring license holders to comply with all national, state and local laws relating to tobacco. That would allow local officials to take action if state or federal laws are being broken.

A prohibition of candy-flavored tobacco products, which appeal to young people, is also being considered, as is an increase in the license fee to pay for an expanded enforcement program.

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