The allure of big grants through a community health program motivated several cities recently to ban electronic cigarettes from city-owned properties.
Ada and Shawnee narrowly passed measures despite opposition from community members, e-cigarette users and vapor shop owners. Tahlequah attempted to pass a ban, but tabled the issue. Oklahoma City is now cautiously considering a ban.
The ordinances represent some of the first laws in Oklahoma regarding use of e-cigarettes, which form a growing yet largely unregulated industry. Two years ago, there were a small number of vapor shops registered with the secretary of state's office; today, there are about 300.
Opponents of the bans say they wipe away citizens' freedom. They are concerned about e-cigarettes being included in tobacco laws, because many claim the vapor devices helped them quit smoking.
But the grants, which are $100,000 or more for cities the size of Shawnee and Ada, are very attractive. The money can be used for any health-related project. Past uses have included walking trails, basketball courts, sidewalks, community gardens and skate parks.
The grants are offered by the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, which uses the earnings on invested payments from a settlement against the tobacco industry to fund a variety of health-related programs. Amounts of the healthy community grants were increased considerably for 2014, the program's third year.
To apply for a trust grant, a community must first become a Certified Healthy Community, a designation through the state Health Department. The deadline to apply for the voluntary certification program was Nov. 1 — which spurred several cities to discuss e-cigarette bans in October.
This year the qualifications for the top tier of the program include prohibiting the use of “smokeless tobacco products on all city-owned properties indoors and outdoors, including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.”
That criterion was added “to try to raise the bar a little,” said Neil Hann, director of community development services for the program. The 2013 certifications are expected to be announced this month.
Tracey Strader, executive director of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, said the programs are voluntary. “I don't think any of us would like to see communities passing policies just for the money,” she said. “But we do really appreciate that communities are having these important conversations.”
She said elected officials have to do what they believe is best for their community, and many of the projects they have funded are exciting.
Opponents speak out
Sean Gore, chairman and president of the Oklahoma Vapor Advocacy League, lobbied against e-cigarette bans in Ada and Tahlequah, and is working to prevent bans in Oklahoma City and at Oklahoma State University.
He says the motivation behind city leaders is misguided.
“People are moving away from tobacco products in strides. And we want to punish them for it. Why? It all comes back to money,” he said. “If they can demonize e-cigarettes, it will be an easier push to get them taxed.”
In Shawnee, the city passed the ban specifically to apply for the grant — not for the health of its citizens, said Commissioner Linda Agee, who voted against the measure.
“My main objection was we're no longer protecting people from secondhand smoke. We're going way beyond that,” she said. She pointed to the lack of scientific evidence showing e-cigarettes are harmful.
But Shawnee Mayor Wes Mainord says the ban isn't premature. Harmful or not, city officials needed to cover it, he said.
The Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust has a budget of $39 million to fund health related projects this year. They include the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline, anti-smoking campaigns, cancer research and others.
The amount of the Healthy Communities Grants, which are based on population, increased significantly this year.
Shawnee, for instance, received $10,000 in 2012 (the city didn't apply in 2013.) But it could qualify for as much as $120,000 if it meets the most stringent criteria for 2014.
The trust will begin accepting grant applications Jan. 1.
In Oklahoma City
The smoking room at Will Rogers World Airport had kept Oklahoma City from qualifying for the Certified Health Community program. But the airport's smoking room closed Sept. 1, and the city applied for the certification in 2013.
Jane Abraham, community and government affairs manager for the city, said the program and potential for grant money was only one reason.
“There were lots of reasons to close the smoking room. We got lots of complaints about it. You can't contain the smoke smell,” she said.
The Oklahoma City Council is also looking into banning e-cigarettes, at the request of Councilman Pete White.
Outside of Oklahoma, other cities are banning e-cigarettes. New York and Chicago are considering bans, and smaller localities such as Pittsfield, Mass., Savannah, Ga., Ketchum, Idaho, and Suffolk County on Long Island have, according to a report from The New York Times.