FLAGSTAFF — Chris Azimi lounges on a park bench in Heritage Square, taking a puff from a white and green stick. It looks like a cigarette, but rather than burning tobacco it emits an odorless vapor laced with nicotine.
Thanks to e-cigarettes, Azimi, a Northern Arizona University student, has been tobacco-free for two months, the longest he’s ever gone in his many attempts to quit smoking.
“Even though it’s not healthy, it’s still healthier in my opinion than regular cigarettes,” he said.
But if he smoked his e-cigarette on a park bench outside of Flagstaff, he could face a fine of up to $50.
The Coconino County Public Health Services District has banned e-cigarettes in public places since 2011, but the ordinance doesn’t apply to cities like Flagstaff or Sedona — only unincorporated areas.
But over the past few years, county officials have noticed loopholes in the form of hookah pens and pipes, which the rule doesn’t cover. They want to change that.
Mike Oxtoby, assistant chief health officer for the county health department, said the agency is working to expand its definition beyond e-cigarettes to any vaporizing device that delivers nicotine.
“We’re not out to put people in jail. We’re not out to give them a criminal record. We want to educate the establishments, who can in turn educate their patrons,” he said.
Trish Lees, a community relations manager for the Coconino County Public Health Services District, said the county decided to broaden its definition because design has expanded over the past few years to include products that don’t refer to themselves as e-cigarettes.
The public ban applies to restaurants, bars, sidewalks, parks and other businesses, Oxtoby said. If the County Board of Supervisors approves the updated definition of vaporizing devices in the ordinance, cities like Flagstaff would have to choose whether they want to follow along.
Oxtoby said Coconino County introduced the ban because nicotine is addictive and preliminary studies suggest e-cigarettes contain carcinogens, so second-hand smoke may be harmful.
“Vulnerable populations like those who are pregnant and those who have respiratory conditions or heart disease, we feel that they shouldn’t be exposed to those in public places,” he said.
E-cigarette use doubled every year from 2008 to 2012, according to an analysis from UBS Investment Research. A report by Wells Fargo Securities estimated the sales of e-cigarettes to reach $2 billion by the end of 2013.
While Coconino is the first and only county in Arizona that’s adopted a public ban on e-cigarettes, some of America’s largest cities have also disallowed them, including New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Additionally, public use of the devices has been prohibited in the states of New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota, as well as 24 counties in states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, according to a report by the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.
Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours said he would need more information to look into the ordinance, but he said with what he knows now he would vote for a public ban on e-cigarettes.
A discussion about adopting the public ban hasn’t showed up yet on a city agenda, Nabours said, but Flagstaff was one of the first cities in Arizona to ban smoking tobacco in restaurants, bars and public spaces.
Jeff Oravits, a member of the Flagstaff City Council and a member of the Coconino County Public Health Services District Advisory Board, said he doesn’t see e-cigarette use as a widespread problem yet and doesn’t think there is enough research yet to justify a ban.
“I would have to see some compelling data that vapors are causing a serious problem,” he said.
Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who serves on the board of directors for NJOY e-cigarettes, said the devices have become a source of debate in public health care.
“I understand the struggle of people trying to fit it into a complex society. ‘It looks like a cigarette, so why don’t we just regulate like a cigarette?'” he said. “But then there’s the negative consequences.”
The consequence of banning e-cigarettes in public spaces, he said, is that people no longer have access to something that reduces their tobacco use. He said he decided to join NJOY’s board because the company told him it seeks to make tobacco obsolete.
“I’d rather have to worry about getting people off of or withdrawing from nicotine in e-cigarettes than having them continue to smoke tobacco, which is combustible, which causes cancer and a whole host of diseases,” he said.
But Oxtoby, with the Coconino County Public Health Services District, said it makes sense to regulate use in public spaces because so little is known.
“It’s really about promoting the public health of our residents and our visitors,” he said. “We’re committed to that, we feel that no one should be exposed to carcinogens if they don’t wish to.”