Vape shop exemption unlikely in new Missoula smoking law

An exemption for vape shops in the city’s proposed updated smoking law is unlikely, after a majority of the Missoula City Council members said Wednesday they wouldn’t vote for the idea.

The ordinance, a local expansion of the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, bans vaping indoors, something vape shop owners have said will hurt their business.

During the Monday public hearing, Ward 3 representative Heather Harp delayed passage to look at adding an exemption for vape shops, to let customers test products in the store.

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“Walking out of last week’s meeting, I had a different side of the story,” Harp said Wednesday.

But after hearing more from the City-County Health Department and vape shop owners, Harp thought the unintended consequences of an exemption would be “devastating.”

Shannon Therriault, the city-county Environmental Health Director, found an exemption illogical and unnecessary, opening the law up to legal attack and requiring more work for health department employees.

Out of 58 stores in Missoula that are licensed to sell alternative nicotine or vapor products, just four are stand-alone vape shops. The other 54 are grocery stores, glass shops, convenience stores or other places where e-cigarettes or vape juice are sold alongside cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

While exempting four stores now may be a small deal, Therriault said, the situation would become more unmanageable and risky if the market increases in the future.

Ellen Leahy, the health department director, said she likes to take a cautionary, proactive approach to new health risks. She understands there are still questions about how harmful vaping is, but said she thought that until anything was definitive, the city should err on the side of caution.

Eight council members — a majority — said they wouldn’t be interested in supporting an exemption, effectively putting the idea to rest. The smoking law will be held in committee for a few weeks to make additional changes before another public hearing is held.

Keith Bowman, the owner of four Ecig Vapor Juice stores in Montana, was the only person to speak in favor of the exemption Wednesday.

He asked the council to stop thinking of vaping as analogous to smoking, saying the vapor produced is of a different quality and his store complies with city regulations that require special ventilation.

“When it comes down to it, it’s not the same as cigarettes,” Bowman said. “You’d be basically putting vaporists, who are trying to quit smoking, back out with all the smokers.”

The proposed ordinance, along with banning vaping and e-cigarette use indoors, allows business owners to ban smoking outdoors within 25 feet of their entrances.

It also would outlaw smoking in certain city-managed public areas like playgrounds, sports fields, Silver’s Lagoon and the duck ponds on Bancroft Street, along with other areas.

Council members held the law in committee to look at recommendations from the American Cancer Society on how the law could be updated.

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