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The Daily Tar Heel

Opinion: Consumers and businesses should set vaping rules

Soon, Orange County bar and restaurant patrons might no longer be using electronic vaporizers indoors — not because of personal choice or the house rules of bar owners, but because a board of unelected bureaucrats has decided it knows best about which products should be allowed in businesses.

The Orange County Health Department might be well-intentioned in its efforts to discourage the use of nicotine products, but a ban on electronic cigarettes in private establishments curtails both freedom of choice and property rights, and might actually induce nicotine users to use more unhealthy traditional cigarettes instead of less-harmful e-cigs.

While the case for a public health department to ban traditional cigarettes is stronger, it is well-established that nicotine vaporizers are dramatically less harmful than smoked tobacco products. Any evidence of harm to bystanders from secondhand mist from smokeless, tar-free vaporizers is poorly established or nonexistent. In its zeal to stamp out anything resembling tobacco usage in the name of public health, the health department ignores a basic lesson of economics: the importance of incentives.

Currently, because regular cigarettes are banned from being smoked indoors, it is more convenient for people who use both vaporizers and traditional tobacco products to substitute vaporizers for regular cigarettes when in bars and restaurants, as users can stay seated to vape and avoid the trouble of getting up to go outside to smoke.

A main motivating factor for tobacco smokers to switch to less harmful vaporizer products is that vapes can be used in far more places. With the proposed ban on indoor e-cig use at bars and restaurants, the department could unintentionally nudge users away from less harmful e-cigs and toward smoked cigarettes if using both were to become equally inconvenient.

The proposed rule also tramples the property rights of business owners, who invested significant amounts of their time and money to develop their business, and who should thus be able to set their own house rules. Restaurant owners are already free to ban e-cigs if their customers complain or if it is the owner’s desire, but setting arbitrary rules like a vaporizer ban places the burden of enforcement on entrepreneurs while reducing their ability to craft a unique atmosphere for their establishment. Further, the proposed ban will likely hit certain establishments particularly hard: more bohemian and hipster-oriented bars, where patrons are more likely to vape, could see a drop in business.

If the Orange County government absolutely must impose its will regarding nicotine products on business owners, it should at least do so through the legislative process, not through an unelected bureaucracy. If legislators vote on such an e-cigarette ordinance, Orange County residents who oppose the ban could vote out legislators who voted for it. When unelected bureaucrats make such choices, voters have no recourse.

Education and social pressure have been much more effective in lowering tobacco usage in recent decades than heavy-handed bans. In a free society, adults can choose to make decisions that might be harmful to themselves. The ever-creeping nanny state should keep its hands off e-cigarettes.

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