The landslide vote Jan. 15, by the Chicago City Council to crackdown on the sale and use of electronic cigarettes included the support of all three aldermen representing Austin.
Deborah Graham (29th), Emma Mitts (37th) and Jason Ervin (28th), were among the 45 council members voting to ban e-cigarettes anywhere traditional cigarettes are prohibited in the city. Four City Council members opposed the ban.
The law also forces stores to move e-cigarettes behind counters and ban their sale to minors.
“We are not sure what the side effects of these cigarettes are going to be,” said Graham, who spoke to Austin Weekly News last week. “We are not saying people can’t smoke them, because people can smoke them in their homes, cars, outside. But in terms of harmful elements, we don’t know what the full extent of e-cigarettes will be. We’ve heard both sides of the spectrum and we are just trying to err on the side of caution.”
Ervin and Mitts did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who supported the City Council measure, maintained that the city wasn’t going to wait for the federal government to issue regulations on the battery-powered product.
As of 2011, 21 percent of adult smokers have tried e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, 10 percent of high school and middle school students admitted to trying e-cigarettes, according to the CDC.
“They started off saying that cigarettes weren’t harmful — [that] lite cigarettes were better, and down the line they still cause cancer,” Graham said.
Supporters of the ban argued that the vapor emitted by e-cigarettes contains potentially harmful carcinogens, although their presence has not been proven. E-cigarette use, supporters add, is also a gateway encouraging children to smoke.
But opponents argued that since no harm of the product has been proven, e-cigarettes should not be regulated. Besides, smokers have successfully used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, they said.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), a smoker who has tried to use e-cigarettes to kick the habit, thinks the product is a viable alternative to cigarettes. Reilly’s aim is to reduce harm caused by nicotine products. He also wants to avoid putting e-cigarette users “right next to the people on the curb smoking.”
Restricting sales to minors, however, was central to the council floor debate.
Ald. Rey Colon (35th) criticized the council for “using children as an excuse for any ordinance we want to pass.” Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said he changed his mind after having to explain the difference between e-cigarettes and traditional ones to his 10-year-old daughter after seeing people smoking the device indoors.
Moreno stressed that he was “on the side of children who haven’t started smoking yet.”
“The use of these e-cigarettes is being glamorized and has the potential to reverse decades of progress,” added Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who sponsored the ordinance.
James Martinez, spokesperson for the American Lung Association in Chicago, called the ordinance a win for those who choose not to smoke e-cigarettes.
“We’re just happy that the rights of everyone else are protected in terms of breathing clean air,” Martinez said.
According to Graham, e-cigarettes are present in the community.
“We just want to make sure — along with the regular cigarettes — that children under the age of 18 don’t get access to e-cigarettes as well,” she said, noting that regular cigarettes are already banned to minors.
The city wants e-cigarettes to fall in that same category, Graham said, adding that there was no policy on e-cigarettes at the state, federal or city level — “That’s why we said we need to do it ourselves.”
As for whether the ban will push those e-cigarette users looking to quit smoking outside with those smoking regular ones, Graham said: “I did not get an outcry from the community regarding e-cigarettes. It’s virtually a non-issue; we didn’t hear anything on it.”
LaRisa Lynch contributed to this story