What happened to Allegheny County’s vaping ban?

It’s been six months — so what’s there to show for it?

No Vaping sign
MIKE MOZART/FLICKR
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Allegheny County’s vaping ban has not drawn a single fine, citation or earned the government a single dollar since it passed this spring — and county health officials said that’s perfectly fine with them.

“I was hoping that we caught it early enough and that it wasn’t much of a hardship for people,” Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, told The Incline.

“I would expect that if people were seeing [vaping], we would be hearing from them.”

But Hacker says they haven’t — not once.

“… We haven’t heard a thing from any municipal government, and we have gotten no complaints since we passed it; no fines, no income, no citations.”

So is the lack of documented enforcement a product of an effective outreach campaign and the public’s willingness to comply with a new directive? Does it indicate that the presence of a ban is enough leverage for residents and business owners to deter scofflaws directly? Is it simply a sign that the public isn’t as rankled by vaping in public spaces as officials are, and therefore isn’t lodging complaints? Or is it a sign of a token public health measure with lax or non-existent enforcement at the local level?

Hacker prefers the first and second scenarios.

“If we got a call tomorrow from someone saying there is somebody in my shop who’s vaping, we would go out and deal with that,” Hacker explained of the ACHD’s enforcement role. But she also stressed the role of civilians in the equation, adding, “We did a whole set of FAQs on our website and suggest the first step if you see someone vaping indoors is to politely request that they stop using the product.”

Perhaps they’re unaware of the ordinance, Hacker said, adding, “There are ways you can try to get them to stop first.”

In that scenario, word-of-mouth and social conditioning are as crucial to the ban’s success as boots on the ground — although far more difficult to quantify.

“There isn’t a very heavy enforcement of smoking [bans] in general, so generally people have perceived these as citizen-centered responsibilities,” Hacker explained.

“Before we passed the regs I noticed people vaping in restaurants I was in, and I have not seen that [since], although that’s anecdotal, not empirical. … But we have also not received any complaints from vapers. There have been no complaints from either end.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Prior to Allegheny County Council voting 8-5 in favor of the ban in March, making Allegheny the second county in Pennsylvania to adopt such a measure, supporters and opponents both had plenty to say on the subject.

Backers of the prohibition, which extends to vaping in places where traditional tobacco cigarettes are already banned, said they were concerned about the “gateway” potential of e-cigarettes — now the most commonly used tobacco product among teens — and the potential hazards of secondhand exposure. These ban supporters included the ACHD and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who ascribed both public health and economic motives to the effort, saying the ban would help “attract companies and talent” to the region, WTAE-TV reported at the time.

Conversely, opponents of the ban — including vape shop owners, The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association and others — questioned the county’s legal authority to implement such a restriction.

Six months later …

The ban’s impact remains unclear.

Sonya Toler, spokesperson with the Bureau of Police in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County’s largest municipality, told The Incline via email:

“I have absolutely no way of categorizing how many times the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police would have cited someone for smoking a cigarette or an e-cigarette in a public building or in a city park. Our records are not kept in a manner where we can drill down to that specific level. Any law enforcement agency working within its jurisdiction would have the ability to enforce both bans. Anyone involved in the management of a public building or park can also inform people that they are not allowed to smoke or vape in the building or park.”

And while Hacker restated the ability of municipal governments to enforce at will — and to do so without informing the ACHD — she also acknowledged the limited resources that can come into play for law enforcement agencies in cities like Pittsburgh.

“We are not doing inspections of vaping shops or any of that stuff, but also within [the ban] is a provision that if a municipal government wants to enforce it, they can,” Hacker said.

She continued: “We did work with Pittsburgh when it did its smoke-free parks rule [in 2015], and there was discussion then about how they were going to enforce that. But they don’t have additional officers to send out.”

Instead, the city gave park rangers the power to enforce the smoke-free parks rule, prompting at least one member of the public and one judge to cite flaws with their execution.

Fast forward to 2017, and enforcement of the county’s vaping ban appears less proactive and less concerted. In the unlikely event that one of these citations is issued by police, for example, the vaping ban provides for criminal fines similar to those seen in Allegheny County with tobacco use in public:

  • $250 for the first offense
  • $500 for the second within one year of the first
  • and $1,000 after that.

Meanwhile, a statewide tax on e-cigarette products has raised millions for Pennsylvania in the last year and prompted a slew of vape shop closures. Nationwide, vaping bans have also continued to accumulate, showing up in the military and aboard commercial flights — all while inspiring a deluge of editorials and think pieces both for and against them.

‘You can’t vape there’

Alex Lipput of Vape Crusades in Bridgeville said shops like his were hit with the 40 percent state vape tax, the FDA’s new “Deeming Rule” and the county’s vaping ban all within the span of six months. Since then, enforcement of the county’s vaping ban has remained a looming if not tangible reality.

“I haven’t heard of any shop owners that were hit. I haven’t heard anyone [individuals or shop owners] telling me they’ve been fined or told not to use. I haven’t heard of a single person affected by [enforcement of the ban] in the least,” Lipput said, adding, “I’d honestly be surprised if they could figure out a way to enforce this with the Pennsylvania budget out of line. And who would be the person to enforce it besides the local police? I don’t think they care enough to enforce it, if they even know about it.”

Under the new rule, vaping is prohibited in stores where vaping products make up less than 50 percent of a store’s revenue. Vaping is permitted inside shops that make a majority of their revenue from these products, however, so long as they meet certain requirements such as not allowing minors inside and prohibiting the sale of food.

Jason Lee, store manager with the Vape Inn on Liberty in Bloomfield, said he notified his customers when the ban took effect in March but hasn’t heard much about it since.

“I know it’s happening, so I’m not sure if they’re not enforcing it or what,” Lee said, before adding, “I wish they were as lax on the 40 percent state tax as they are on this.”

In total, employees, managers and owners at more than half a dozen Allegheny County vape shops told The Incline that they had yet to hear of an indoor vaping citation being issued.

Jacoby Freeman, an employee at the South Side’s Glassworx Smoke & Vape shop, said he’s heard from customers who were warned, but nothing beyond that.

“A few customers let me know that somebody told them they couldn’t vape in a spot, and I asked ‘Is smoking allowed there?’ and they said ‘No’ and I said ‘Well, then you can’t vape there.’”

Meanwhile, Hacker acknowledged that public reaction to the vaping ban has been largely non-existent, at least from the county’s perspective. Traditional enforcement has been largely non-existent, too, though Hacker said that doesn’t mean the ban is a failure.

“One of the things with this is a sense of ‘OK, this is how it is now with this behavior.’ And I think the most important message to send is that we’re creating an environment where this [vaping in public] is not acceptable.”

County Executive Fitzgerald told The Incline in an email that the vaping ban has been a good thing.

“While there have been no infractions to date, anecdotally we are seeing less use of e-cigarettes in restricted areas and there have been very few complaints from either side regarding this. Overall, this is a good thing for the community,” he said.