The Houston City Council scored a big win for public health when it voted unanimously to add e-cigarettes to the city’s ordinance on smoking in public places, says Pasadena pediatrician Lindy Upton McGee, MD, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine.
The ordinance change means vaping products are now banned everywhere that traditional tobacco products have been banned since 2007. Houston now prohibits smoking and vaping in numerous areas, including enclosed public places or workplaces, near building entrance or exit doors, and in outdoor arenas and outdoor seating areas of public spectator events, according to the city of Houston.
The late March vote was a win in two ways, says Dr. McGee, who has testified on behalf of the Texas Medical Association on tobacco legislation and who works on that topic with the Texas Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
First, it prevents third parties from breathing in harmful chemicals from vaping products or picking up the residue from vaping oils on their skin and clothes.
“We’re reducing the exposure of everyone when we do this,” Dr. McGee said.
It also makes vaping less visible, she says.
“We know that when teenagers see people vaping – especially when they see young adults vaping – it makes it seem cool, like something they want to do,” she said. “So, it’s a win for that as well.”
That’s important because about one in four high school students in Texas have at least tried e-cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). ALA and TMA are both members of the Texas Tobacco Control Coalition, which strongly supported the ordinance change.
More than 100 cities across Texas have adopted smoke-free indoor air ordinances, but their coverage varies, according to Charlie Gagen, advocacy director for ALA in Texas and Oklahoma. For instance, only about 75 of those ordinances include prohibitions of vaping products like e-cigarettes and hookahs in bars and restaurants.
With this change, four of Texas’ five largest cities – Austin, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio – have smoke-free ordinances that include e-cigarettes, he said in an email interview. Only Dallas has not included vaping products.
Texas law states: “E-cigarette use is prohibited or restricted statewide in the same public places where smoking is prohibited or restricted.” But the state law includes numerous exceptions, Mr. Gagen says. For instance, bars and restaurants are not included.
Texas received an “F” grade from ALA’s 2022 report card in the category of providing smoke-free air. It also received F’s for tobacco prevention and cessation funding, tobacco taxes, access to cessation services, and access to flavored tobacco products.
The Texas Public Health Coalition (TPHC) – which includes TMA and dozens of other organizations – has called for state policymakers to enact a range of reforms designed to discourage vaping. For instance, TPHC advocacy helped lead the 2021 Texas Legislature to put vaping products on the same regulatory footing as products made with tobacco. But vaping products still are not taxed at the same rate as tobacco products. TPHC is also a member of the Texas Tobacco Control Coalition.
When cities first started passing anti-smoking ordinances, many private businesses – especially bars and restaurants – argued strongly against them, saying they would drive away customers, Dr. McGee said. However, the inclusion of e-cigarettes in the Houston ordinance received no opposition during the public comment period, and that silence is significant, she says.
Businesses “found that many people, like me, enjoy them more when you don’t have to smell someone else’s cigarettes,” Dr. McGee added. “They realized that it’s not that big of a deal, and they can keep their patrons safe and still have people come in.”