Smoke signals

Posted: March 17, 2014

THE MOST recent burning issue to be dragged before City Council resulted in both heat and light and a peculiar arrangement of the political constellation.

Council was hearing testimony on whether electronic cigarettes, so-called smokeless cigarettes, which do not burn, should be treated the same as tobacco cigarettes, which do burn and emit smoke.

Presenting the all-clear (among others) was Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFreePA, an anti-smoking organization opposed to the legislation sponsored by Councilman Bill Greenlee.

"It's difficult to have a rational discussion with ideologues who have their minds made up already," Godshall gripes, adding he has sent weekly email tobacco harm-reduction updates filled with the latest science, to everyone on Council and to the Health Department.

"I sent the Health Department over 100 published studies done on e-cigarettes, they either didn't read or they misrepresented all the evidence in those studies," Godshall says.

I couldn't reach Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz before deadline, but his department (without answering my question about receiving information from Godshall) responded it did its own research and "E-cigarette use causes short-term negative impacts on lung function, and the vapor can contain nicotine, heavy metals, and cancer-causing compounds. While harm from secondhand vapor has not yet been demonstrated, we advocate a precautionary approach."

One thing not in dispute is the popularity of the cigarette substitute. Last year e-cig sales were $2 billion, up from $500 million the year before, Godshall says.

The battery-powered device is growing so fast it has a Vapefest, where fans can gather, kind of like San Francisco's Exotic Erotic Ball, but much less fun.

Greenlee acknowledges he got emails from Godshall and also from supporters of his bill.

Godshall says he sent scientific information. Greenlee says "it was more his opinion or how he was interpreting certain things."

No one, Greenlee says, would argue against keeping the devices out of the hands of children under 18. He's wrong, some would argue, but not me, not here.

The bottom line of Greenlee's thinking is this: Better to be safe than sorry. Safe from what?, Godshall would say. Didn't you read what I sent you?

The irony is that most of Council and the Health Department and SmokeFreePA were allies in the battle against indoor cigarette smoking in public places, resulting in Philadelphia's ban in January 2007.

Around that time, says Godshall, the anti-smoking movement split in two. There is the public-health faction, which he supports, trying to reduce cigarette use, and what he calls the "abstinence-only, prohibitionist faction that wants to eliminate all tobacco products, all tobacco companies and all tobacco use."

Godshall's disdain for that side - which opposes e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco - is palpable and that's the side Council has aligned with, he believes.

In a memorable exchange Thursday - you could almost see smoke blowing out his ears - Godshall told Council that vapors from e-cigs were no more dangerous than the carcinogens found in the rug on Council's floor.

Exasperated, usually cool Councilman Greenlee responded that we're not smoking the rug.

Ah, this brings me back to my youth, the good ole days of 2005 and 2006 when I heard the "dangers" of second-hand smoke vastly overstated, if not invented.

The anti-smoking forces created a faux-science smokescreen to convince the public that any momentary contact with second-hand smoke would be lethal. That is just not true.

Godshall says cigarette-smoking substitutes such as e-cigs, gum, patches and tobacco chaws may not be desirable but "are about 99 percent less hazardous" than cigarettes.

That is the crux: The unknown hazards of e-cigs versus the known hazards of real cigarettes.

I side with Godshall. This isn't a case of siding with the devil you know against the devil you don't. The devil we know is death.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/BykoColumns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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