IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Council is interested in banning the use of so-called electronic cigarettes on public property — and possibly in private workplaces, too.
The city is holding off on that latter move, although City Council members at a work session Tuesday spoke favorably of eventually prohibiting the products from places like restaurants and bars. That would possibly be unprecedented in Iowa.
“Let’s do it,” council member Kingsley Botchway II said.
He joined the five other council members present in asking staff to first provide a plan to ban the use of the products on city-owned property.
The discussion came after the Johnson County Board of Health earlier this year asked area towns and school districts to include e-cigarettes in their policies on tobacco use.
A few states and nearly 190 cities nationwide had restrictions as of July, said Susan Vileta, health educator with the Johnson County Public Health Department.
E-cigarettes have ignited an international debate.
They are battery-powered products that turn chemicals into an aerosol inhaled by the user, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
They have been promoted by some people as a safer alternative to smoking. But the effects of their use are not fully known, and there are warnings they may be harmful.
The World Health Organization last week said while e-cigarettes may be less toxic than conventional cigarettes, they pose threats to adolescents and fetuses and increase exposure of nonsmokers to nicotine and other toxicants.
The WHO recommended banning their use indoors in public and work places.
Opponents also say e-cigarettes, which come in different flavors and child-themed designs, can be a pathway for minors into traditional smoking.
Under a new law that took effect July 1, Iowa prohibits the sale of vapor and alternative nicotine products to minors and the offering of samples within 500 feet of a school.
But some public health advocates, including Johnson Public Health Director Douglas Beardsley, criticized the bill for not going far enough and being geared toward the tobacco industry.
Efforts to add the vapor products to the Iowa’s Smokefree Act continue, Beardsley said. That law bans smoking in nearly all public places, restaurants and bars and enclosed places of employment.
Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said she believed municipalities could impose similar restrictions on e-cigarettes. Beardsley said he was not aware of any Iowa community that has gone that far yet.
City Manager Tom Markus cautioned that taking the lead could bring legal challenge.
“From your manager’s perspective, I’m OK being No. 2,” he said. “You’re not last.”
The council said they’d wait and see if the Iowa Attorney General’s Office weighs in on whether municipalities can restrict usage on private property.
Rick Dobyns, a physician, said he did not want to wait long.
“I would be proud to be in the cross hairs of big tobacco,” he said.
Iowa City already goes farther than the state smoking law by prohibiting smoking in certain sections of public parks, city-owned parking ramps and the Pedestrian Mall.
A divided Johnson County Board of Supervisors this summer added alternative nicotine products and vapor products to its law prohibiting tobacco use on county property.