This story was updated at 2:51pm on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.
Allegheny County Council voted to ban the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices in all public places where smoking is also prohibited after a lengthy debate Tuesday evening.
Residents on both sides of the issue spoke passionately about whether people should be allowed to vape in restaurants, theaters, retail stores, athletic arenas and other public spaces.
Recent University of Pittsburgh graduate Eleanora Kaloyeropoulou, 22, of Squirrel Hill said she’s suffered from a chronic cough for several years and now spends most of her time indoors. She said for her, and for others with respiratory conditions, being indoors is a refuge from irritants such as cigarette smoke and car exhaust.
“I implore you, help me, help the community, in making sure that just by going to a restaurant, someone’s e-cigarette isn’t going to trigger coughing in me that’s going to last three or four days,” she said.
But others shared stories about how vaping has actually improved the health of their loved ones.
Michelle Hall opened Diversity Vape Shop in Dormont with her husband after he switched to vaping from smoking, which he’d done for 40 years.
“That was the glorious start to his feeling better, healthier, no more migraines and immediately able to taste food again and walk without having to struggle to breathe,” Hall said.
She said the ordinance would force vapers outside with the smokers and the habit that they “fought so hard to get away from.”
Councilman James Ellenbogen (D-District 12) wasn’t swayed by Hall’s argument.
“This is truly, to me, an argument of convenience: ‘I don’t want to go outside and smoke or vape.’ Being told that ‘Well, you’ll put me out there with the smokers.’ Last I looked, the outside’s a big place. Nobody told you to go stand next to them,” he said.
Ellenbogen was one of eight council members to vote in favor of the ordinance. Those voting against it said it went too far in restricting the rights of business owners to make their own decisions.
“For example, if the hair salon I go to chooses to allow vaping, I can choose to go there or not,” said Councilwoman Cindy Kirk (R-District 2).
Councilwoman Sue Means (R-District 5) argued that the bill was deeply flawed and should be sent back to committee for further review. She said she was particularly bothered by the proposed fines that could be levied on people who violate the vaping ban.
While criminal fines are similar to those for smoking – $250 for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for each thereafter – Means noted that the civil fines could be up to $10,000 for the first offense.
“Really? Really?” Means said. “And this legislation is OK? It’s not OK with me.”
County Solicitor Andrew Szefi said it is unlikely that a first time offender would be fined $10,000, and that penalties for a first offense would likely be closer to $100.
Szefi also said he and the county’s legal team are confident the ordinance will hold up to a potential legal challenge, which was also a sticking point for several council members.
Research has yet to prove definitively whether secondhand vape smoke is a threat to human health. According to the American Lung Association, many e-cigarettes do contain carcinogens, though the chemical makeup of the vaporizer cartridges varies widely between brands, and there is little oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Ellenbogen said that he wants to err on the side of caution.
“I don’t want to be part of something that maybe 20 years from now is a catastrophe, because we didn’t do anything about it,” he said.
Council members Ellenbogen, Patrick Catena, Paul Klein, Robert Macey, Charles Martoni, John Palmiere, Denise Ranalli-Russell and DeWitt Walton voted in favor of the ordinance. Members Means, Kirk, Thomas Baker, Samuel DeMarco and Ed Kress voted against it, while Nicholas Futules and Council President John DeFazio abstained.
In accordance with state law, the ban could go into effect as early as Monday, March 20, though county spokesperson Amie Downs wasn't able to confirm when enforcement of the ban will officially begin.