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Erie County Legislature passes law restricting use of e-cigarettes

The Erie County Legislature by a 9-1 vote Thursday approved a local law that bans the use of electronic cigarettes and vaping devices at all public indoor facilities, except in establishments where the devices and their accoutrements are either being sold to or sampled by prospective users.

The law finally came up for a vote after first being debated in the Legislature’s Health & Human Services Committee last summer and following two well-attended public hearings on the legislation. On Thursday, the law’s sponsor, Legislator Peter J. Savage III, D-Buffalo, stressed that the law did not impose a ban on e-cigarettes or other vaping devices but merely restricted their use at public indoor venues, such as in bars, restaurants, office buildings and shopping centers.

Savage said the law, which has bipartisan support among county lawmakers, is aimed not at regulating e-cigarettes but ensuring residents’ absolute right to breathe clean air under the county’s Indoor Clean Air Act.

“We have a local law that is responsible, fair, balanced and one that puts the public health first,” Savage said before Thursday’s vote.

Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, who cast the sole vote against the law, called it overregulation and poorly crafted.

“In this body, I feel we’ve done nothing but overregulate. This is more of that regulation. Our charter duty is to pass and maintain a county budget, not to regulate what people do in their private lives,” said Lorigo.

“What we should have done is worked with the people who are opposed to this law,” he added.

The arguments presented by Savage and Lorigo were a replay of the issues raised by opponents and supporters of the law at public hearings held last month and as recently as a week ago. While acknowledging the potential benefit of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes and an aid in smoking cessation, Savage also expressed concern that youth who had never previously smoked cigarettes are attracted to the allure of vaping and becoming addicted to nicotine in the process.

“We’ve heard throughout this process from medical experts, doctors, science experts from institutions like Roswell Park, the leading cancer research institute in this country,” said Savage.

He rattled off speakers from the American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association, Tobacco-Free Coaltion, Wellness Institute and even Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

“All (have) concurred that there are risks associated with the use of electronic cigarettes and their emissions,” Savage said. “Just because the chemicals in these products are different (and) are not as harmful as other chemicals that are in traditional cigarettes does not mean that they are safe.”

However, Lorigo noted that there is no scientific consensus on the health effects of e-cigarettes.

“I understand the clean air argument, I certainly do, but there have been no definitive studies. We’ve heard from the American Cancer Society and other independent studies that say one thing, but we don’t have the information,” Lorigo said.

He added that, while he was not necessarily against placing some restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes, the new law is heavy-handed.

“I’m asking for a better law,” Lorigo said. “We’ve heard about Baltimore, where businesses can opt in or opt out of allowing people to use vaping devices in their facilities. That’s an option. Why haven’t we supported that option?”

That may sound reasonable, Savage said, but it would not take into account the rights of bartenders and servers who might be forced to work in environments where vaping is allowed.

“The employees of these establishments also have a right to clean air,” said Savage.

He added that establishments that did not wish to allow vaping might feel pressure to do so anyway to compete with those businesses that do.

“What they have asked for is that we create a level playing field,” Savage said.

Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, said both of her colleagues had valid perspectives, but said she would rather err on the side of caution where issues of public health and safety are concerned. Both she and Savage also argued that the law could be subject to change, with new research. Savage added that more than 200 municipalities across the U.S. have already adopted similar laws.

“Laws are not steady. Laws are moving documents and we continue to work to improve them as we move forward,” Savage said.

The new law will take effect once it is filed with New York State Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales.