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.