Vape-ruption at City Hall
I’d like to start this off with a question…
How many butts does it take to fill up an ashtray?
But before I answer that, let me just say that today, which will probably be yesterday by the time this gets posted, on January 7, 2015, Big Chief Vapor Products was witness to the New Orleans City Council’s Community Development Committee’s complete lack of respect towards the vapor community as a whole. Now, I have to admit before I go on, the committee wasn’t all bad. Both Councilman Jason Williams and Councilman James Gray cast nays towards the ordinance, which still passed through to the City Council with a 3-2 vote because of Councilwomen Susan Guidry, Stacy Head, and Latoya Cantrell. And speaking of Councilwoman Cantrell, the author of the ordinance we were all there to get amended, she seemed to be quite cold and uncaring when it came to even recognizing that people were there to represent the vapor industry, or that there even was a vapor industry in the first place.
But anyway, before I get ahead of myself, let’s start from the beginning…
For anybody that’s been living under a rock the last few months, back in November of 2014 Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell introduced a bill that would first designate vapor products as smoking products, and then ban their use within 25 feet of ANY business, including vape shops. That would basically make it illegal to vape inside of a vape shop within city limits, which would make it nearly impossible for customers to taste flavors before they bought them, and decimate the local industry. Today the Community Development Committee met to hear from the public before they voted to see if the bill should move on to the City Council, with a few amendments. One amendment changed the distance from 25 feet to 5 feet, and another assured that cigar shops would be able to keep on smoking, all while completely shunning the entire vapor community. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So to start the day, Big Chief decided to throw its support behind all the New Orleans vapor shops that were being threatened by this ban, and we all took a little field trip over to City Hall. The ownership duo of Heather Hutton and Marcus Campo crammed us into the back of their truck, and we met up with blend-master Kevin and loyal customer Dylan in the council chambers. And upon arrival, after first stepping foot into those council chambers, we were taken through a time portal of some sort and transported straight back to 1976… or 1981…? It was kind of hard to tell.
It smelled of elementary school auditorium, with chairs covered in some strange sort of green carpet-type fabric, all tattered and torn from decades upon decades of butts sitting within them, rising and dropping with the sway of emotion that such a room brought. And as they were sat within by us, they quite literally crumbled beneath us… so we moved a row up.
From there, Marcus set his sights on a local physician who was there in support of the smoking ban, to get his opinion on the use of vapor products, otherwise known as e-cigarettes. That doctor then proceeded to explain how he would rather see his patients using e-cigarettes than smoking tobacco, and literally laughed at the fact that the council was attempting to ban them due to their ‘unknown dangers’. But then the meeting began, and it was all sort of downhill from there… at least it felt that way.
From the start it was all about secondhand smoke, with e-cigarettes being mentioned at a glance every once in a while, and never in a good way. This was made most notable by the woman representing the American Lung Association. Now, I can write an entire article on them alone, and how they may possibly be a bit biased when it comes to commenting on vapor products, because of who they get funded by. This was a point brought up by Chad Rogers from Salty Dog Vapor down in Houma later in the meeting, who was basically laughed at, but I’ll get back to the point.
Jennifer Coffer of the American Lung Association introduced the panel, which started off with Cynthia Hallett, Executive Director of American’s For Non-Smoker’s Rights, who had a good 10-15 minute speech to open up the meeting, because she was one of the 7 special representatives (6 of which were for the bill, with 1 against), and Cynthia not only explained how deadly secondhand smoke from cigarettes was, but also lumped in e-cigarettes as being just as deadly, which is simply ludicrous.
In her own words, eliminating e-cigarettes would “prevent another form of air pollution”, and she warned that, “Some may try to persuade the council that e-smoking devices just contain vapor-mist,” before mocking vapers with the wiggle of her head and a shift in her tone as she stated, “Oh, it’s just water vapor.”
Cynthia then went on to quote ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers), who says, “Electronic cigarettes do not produce a vapor, but rather a dense, visible aerosol,” and went on to name a few known carcinogens that were detected in this aerosol.
What she failed to mention, however, was that many of these chemicals are produced naturally by humans simply by breathing, and are exhaled from our body with each exhale every person ever breathes out, and the rest can be found in the air on a regular basis, thanks to things like oil refineries and cars. E-cigarettes are apparently quite similar, because they also seem to emit the very same trace levels of these chemicals, although at rates that we typically breathe in on a regular day-to-day basis, and have been deemed safe and not dangerous at all by several of the top scientists in their field.
After that she threw in a quite interesting left hook, which had nothing at all to do with e-cigarettes other than the fact that she very strategically placed them each in the same sentence. So within the same breathe that she talks about this ‘mysteriously dangerous’ vapor of e-cigarettes, she quotes the US Surgeon General, who stated that, “There is no safe level of secondhand smoke.”
Now, let me pause this for a moment so we can take a closer look at all this. And first of all, ignoring the fact that she blatantly took a quote regarding tobacco and placed it on e-cigarettes, I’ve read quite a few dubious studies that have made far more dangerous claims about e-cigarettes, and not one of them was brought up by any of the detractors.
They could’ve easily brought up the Japanese study that claimed to find 100 times the formaldehyde in e-cigarettes, or the studies funded by the FDA and the ALA which are often cited as claiming very much the same thing. But if they did, they might be forced to explain away the coils that were “burned to a crisp”, or the human volunteers that were exhaling formaldehyde and having it detected on the machines before the vaping exercises ever began, or the poor attempt at doing the math on how much formaldehyde was in a tobacco cigarette to begin with.
What that tells me is that they did their homework in regards to which studies held the findings they wished to show, without leaving room to be questioned on their validity. So they chose the much easier route of choosing a simple study that did find these things out, and just neglected to mention a few details.
It was wise, tactical, and cunning, and it led straight back into the talk of secondhand smoke, which persisted for another 35 minutes before public commenting at last began.
So after a bit of back and forth between the pro-ban and the pro-tobacco parts of the crowd, a few people did get a couple of quick opportunities to talk a bit of good about the vapor industry, until this woman from the ALA got a second turn at the microphone. Her name was Jennifer Cofer, and she used her time at the mic to basically demand that the council disregard any comments made by us unintelligent and lowly e-cigarette users, who get their information from nonsensical research studies and lab tests, and strongly insisted that the provision regarding e-cigarettes remained in the bill.
Well, okay, maybe she didn’t really say all that. Her actual quote was more like starting off right where her little buddy Cynthia left off earlier, but her tone gave away the fact that she had a very clear agenda in being at that meeting, “As we know, there’s no safe level of secondhand smoke,” she began, and immediately wanted to speak about the e-cigarette “fact”. She then made it clear that the ALA was working hard with the FDA to make a final deeming regulation on e-cigarettes, but that “there is no ruling just yet on what we know is in it.”
Ah, she slipped a little, you see. But she caught herself right away by bringing up the CDC and how they found “some cancer-causing poisons in e-cigarettes,” without mentioning how they were only found at trace levels that are already commonly taken in by the human body on a regular basis. And that’s about when she pulled out the sympathy card and said that her grandparents didn’t know what was in their cigarettes 60 years ago, so “we don’t want another generation having to say that in 60 years,” before encouraging the council to keep their e-cigarette ban in the bill.
So anyway, the public comments kept coming, mostly in favor of the ban, until the Big Chief ownership duo of Heather and Marcus took the microphone. And to give a little behind-the-scenes scoop here, Marcus had a 5 page, all-out speech prepared, that he worked tirelessly to perfect, poured all of his heart into it… only for the council to give him 2 minutes to address the 25 page bill, and cut him off after only a few paragraphs.
Still, I think he got out some very important points in his short amount of time at the microphone.
He began by letting the council know that, “I hope to increase the committee’s understanding of the vapor industry, so they you will be able to make an informed decision on any regulation regarding these products.” Most importantly, however, especially after hearing all this talk of dangerous chemicals hidden in the vapor of e-cigarettes, Marcus made it clear that, “Everything around us contains contaminants,” before calling out the FDA and the ALA by saying that what has been failed to be mentioned is the fact that, “These same results only proved that the contaminants found were so trace and nonexistent that they were deemed not harmful by the FDA itself.”
Marcus then went on the quote Mitch Zeller, a director at the Food and Drug Administration, who said, “If we could get all of those people who smoke to completely switch all of their cigarettes to noncombustible cigarettes, it would be good for public health,” and Professor John Britton, the Chair of the Tobacco Advisory Group at the Royal College of Physicians, who stated, “If all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes, we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today. It’s a massive potential public health prize.”
“In fact,” Marcus added, “Dr. Kyle Happel,” the physician that he spoke with before the meeting began, who was actually one of the special guest speakers, “Says he, himself, does not believe there to be any studies showing secondhand vapor to be harmful. He even laughed at the idea of it, and said that he would direct his patients to use these products.”
“As far as Cynthia Hallett,” Marcus went on to challenge her claims from earlier, and I’m quoting this word for word, “She quoted some studies earlier… I believe it was the… ashtray or refrigerator union.” The comment even made Councilwoman Cantrell giggle a bit, probably because she questioned Cynthia about ASHRAE earlier, and it does sound pretty close to ashtray. Then he closed it with, “I’m not too sure about those studies, but all the ones we’ve looked up are having to do with medical professional’s opinions, and we believe those are the ones that count.”
So after Marcus was abruptly cut-off, knowing how little he was actually able to get across, I began to notice a disturbing pattern, which repeated itself time and time again.
(The following 2 paragraphs have apparently been exaggerated by my memories, due to the emotions that ended that day. After watching the tape back, I believe everyone at the mic was given the same amount of flexibility. Sometimes the people talking about vapor products were just extremely quick in their comments, and finished voluntarily before the clock ran out, while both sides of the bill were given equal amounts of time to speak beyond their limit. But I would like to keep these paragraphs unedited as a valid representation of what it did feel like as that meeting boiled down to an end, and that feeling may have contributed to the ultimate eruption.)
I started watching the clock that was counting down for each speaker, high up on the right wall. Each speaker was to be given 60 seconds to speak, which seemed a bit short, yet fair… I guess. But then I started watching that countdown clock reach zero, and depending on who was speaking, they would either be thanked and shoved aside or allowed to keep on speaking.
What I’m saying is that whenever a supporter of e-cigarettes took the stage, they were promptly cut off as the 60 second clock expired. But if it was a supporter of the bill, it seemed they were allowed to just keep on talking until they simply ran out of good things to say about it. Even the detractors of the bill for tobacco related reasons seemed to be given a lot of time to talk. It was as if Councilwoman Cantrell simply had no urge to learn or even hear anything concerning electronic cigarettes. And if I’m being honest – this is just my personal opinion – the whole thing really felt like some big show, just some sorry sitcom about how democracy went wrong. (I still believe that last sentence to be a valid representation of that meeting.)
It ultimately led to Anthony Kolesa, one of the most prominent figures in the New Orleans vapor community, being completely and almost blatantly left out of the debate. After questions were directed at Councilwoman Cantrell when she warned of an end to the meeting, by Chad Rogers of Houma, she assured the vapers that lined those back walls and dotted the crowd that she would allow their side a chance to speak. That was right before Kevin Dettman of Big Chief was called to the microphone, and he promptly and graciously seceded his time to Chad, to assure he was no longer ignored.
The council then heard points that hadn’t been made before, as Chad almost pleaded, “I want to make sure that above all, there is a provision included for vape shops, to allow for them to vape in the vape shops.” But this wasn’t his parish, and it isn’t our parish. The council still needed to hear from Smoke Cignals, the very first vapor shop in the city of New Orleans. But shortly after Chad talked for as long as he was allowed and stepped back into a rousing ovation from the crowd, and after an all too convenient and oddly long pro-smoking-ban speech by the returning Cynthia Hallett, Councilwoman Cantrell called an end to the meeting.
It was almost cute for a second. You know, like she just forgot about Anthony and she was just going to say, “Oh, yeah… didn’t mean to forget about you, come on up.”
It would have been a simple enough thing to say, sure. But I think it was probably a little bit too simple of a thing to say, and she was just in a hurry to pass this thing and get to lunch or something, because from then on, she went about ignoring the entire vapor community.
As shouts of, “Let him speak,” began to rise up throughout the room, just inches away from turning into a full-blown chant, an officer arrived to start removing maybe 30 or so extremely compliant vapers from the chambers, and Councilwoman Guidry tried to tell them, “Gentlemen, that’s not going to help,” as Councilwoman Cantrell almost sighs behind her, “Yeah.”
During the commotion, D.J. and I found ourselves standing up in protest after a pro-smoking-ban supporter seated in front of us turned to start demanding that we stop applauding our fellow vaper’s efforts to be heard. I then found myself assuring this woman that this was all a sham, a ruse, some gimmick that we were all supposed to buy into, and her side had already won, yet it only seemed to further her anti-vaping rant against us, forcing us from our seats to storm from the room in a fit of complete and utter disgust.
With calls for sanity and cries of neglect sounding out around us as we left the chambers, a two minute hold was called to calm things down. Outside, a representative of Councilman Williams was assuring the disgruntled vapers that their side had indeed been heard, and while we were away, back inside the chambers Councilwoman Stacy Head posed a question to Councilwoman Cantrell regarding the tasting of vapor products, and asked, “Do any of the amendments, or the amendments to the amendments that have been put forward today, allow for the exception for the tasting of the flavors of the vapor… cigarettes? I don’t know too much about the technology of these things, but apparently it’s like tasting olives or nuts (giggles), and you have to taste them to know whether you like them, and these people have to do that in their facility.”
Councilwoman and Committee Chair, Latoya Cantrell responded with, “At this time those amendments are not on the table. But as you know, once we move this forward there will be additional amendments that council members will choose to move forward on.” She seemed to assure that our concerns would be addressed.
But by the time D.J. and I made it back into the chambers, it was just in time to watch the committee pass the ordinance through by a vote of 3-2. And even though it may not yet be law, and it may not be their intentions, but if things continue along this path, and the vapor community is ultimately excluded from these debates, the council will not only be cutting New Orleans out of the fastest growing industry in America, they will in essence be telling all smokers in the city of New Orleans that e-cigarettes are just as bad and dangerous for their health as smoking tobacco, which could possibly create more tobacco smokers in the long run, because they already heard several detractors of vapor products state today that “we already know the dangers of smoking cigarettes”, so smokers might as well stick to the real thing.
Councilmen Williams and Gray, however, were each able to see the separation in the room, that this debate, despite its end, hadn’t yet come close to reaching a conclusion. They understood that not every voice had been given a chance to speak, and made it clear that they wanted all the amendments included in the ordinance, with all the voices being heard, before anything was passed on to the City Council, thus they voted nay.
But that brings me back to that question I posed earlier…
The answer is 3… it only take 3 butts to fill up an ashtray.
Those butts were sitting up there in those chairs today… their names were Latoya Cantrell, Susan Guidry, and Stacy Head … and they’ll make an ashtray out of New Orleans if someone doesn’t help them to amend their poorly written and ill-informed attempt at saving it.
Thank you for reading.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, R.M. Plaiscia, and do not necessarily represent those of Big Chief Vapor Products or any other vapor organization.
RMP – 37 Weeks Smoke Free!!!