CITY HALL — Proposed new restrictions on e-cigarettes went temporarily up in smoke Monday over City Council concerns about whether aldermen were "overreaching" on the health dangers.
The proposed ordinance would have labeled e-cigarettes "tobacco products" and extended the same restrictions on their use by and sale to minors as conventional cigarettes, as well as their use by anyone indoors and in public spaces.
But the Finance Committee and the Health Committee did extend a ban on sales of flavored cigarettes to any merchant within 500 feet of a school, up from the current 100 feet. That was especially aimed at menthol cigarettes, considered a gateway tobacco product for young novice smokers.
Support for the e-cigarette ordinance fell apart under testimony from Chris Norberg of the Law Department, who said it was aimed at devices that delivered nicotine, then clarified that it was any device that "can" deliver nicotine.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the Finance Committee, wondered how a merchant or a bar owner or restaurateur would know one from the other.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the Health Committee, called it a "conundrum," adding, "You could say it's not nicotine in here, and it's tough to prove."
Combined with the lack of overwhelming evidence that e-cigarettes pose the same general health risk on secondhand smoke, that uncertainty led Ald. William Burns (4th) to propose the ordinance be held for additional consideration, a motion that passed along with the extended ban on menthol sales.
But before that debate clouded the Council Chamber.
"Despite the name, e-cigarettes are not cigarettes," said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), a confirmed if somewhat shameful smoker.
"One thing I regret terribly is ever having picked up tobacco," Reilly added. He said he was using e-cigarettes in an attempt to cut back, and was chided into sampling one on the council floor, although he quickly put it away pointing to the media area before he could be photographed for the news in an incident that had aldermen briefly laughing.
The laughter didn't last, however. "I think this is very overreaching," said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th). "People who are trying to quit are going to be prohibited from quitting.
"There's not enough evidence out here. We're really jumping the gun," she added. "Quite frankly, my people would rather have more police officers," especially restricting the sale of loose cigarettes on the street.
Reilly echoed that, asking about how police officers and inspectors with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection would be expected to issue citations. "I think our enforcement agents have better things to do with their time," he said, adding, "At what point are these harmful levels?"
"To what level can we actually enforce this?" Ald. Rey Colon (35th) said. He wondered if aldermen weren't "getting ahead of ourselves" in attacking "vaping," a usage derived from the vapors released by e-cigarettes compared with the smoke of conventional cigarettes.
"Vaping has the potential to undo decades of de-normalization" of smoking, argued Dr. Phillip Gardiner of the University of California in testifying before the committee. He said e-cigarettes were trying to encourage the "re-normalization of smoking" and pointed to their kid-oriented flavors such as chocolate, cherry and even gummy bears. "They're made to entrap children, straight up," he added.
Dr. Carolyn Lopez, president of the Chicago Board of Health, said the burden of proof should be for e-cigarettes to show they're safe before being approved for use, not to prove they're dangerous once they've added to nicotine addiction. "The first adage of medicine is to do no harm," she said. "That's really where we ought to be going."
"At the end of the day, we're trying to regulate tobacco products," Cardenas said, trying to defend the ordinance.
Yet there was too much uncertainty for aldermen to act on it, and it was held for further consideration.
The extended ban on sales of flavored cigarettes and menthols, however, heads to the full council for approval Wednesday.