LARGO — When city library patrons recently complained about people using electronic cigarettes inside the building, officials couldn't do much. There were no city rules against it.
That could be changing. Largo commissioners have told their city attorney to draft an ordinance that would prohibit the smoking of e-cigarettes in city-owned buildings. If they approve it, Largo could be one of the first local governments in the Tampa Bay area — and one of only a handful nationwide — to impose such a ban.
"I just don't think you should be smoking them inside a public building," said Largo Commissioner Jamie Robinson, who proposed the measure after city police volunteers told him about e-cigarette use inside the library.
An e-cigarette is a battery-operated device containing nicotine, flavors and other chemicals that are turned into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user in the same way a traditional cigarette is smoked. Some are designed to look like tobacco-containing cigarettes or cigars or pipes. There are almost 500 brands and more than 7,700 flavors, according to one estimate.
They've become increasingly popular in recent years, and a study released earlier this month by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed e-cigarette use among teens is high. About 17 percent of high school seniors said they had smoked them in the month before the survey.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta cites a study released earlier this year that indicated about 20 million Americans had tried them at least once. The use of e-cigarettes was especially high among former and current cigarette smokers.
As their popularity has increased, so have concerns about the safety.
"These products aren't safe," said Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers Rights. Among the concerns, he said, is the lack of labeling so people don't know the contents or the quantities. In some cases, Frick said, heavy metals and cancer-causing ingredients have been found in e-cigarettes or in the vapor expelled from them.
Despite the concerns, laws have been slow to take effect. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a rule that, if adopted, would give the agency authority to regulate e-cigarettes. Earlier this year, Florida made it illegal to sell them to minors.
But Frick said that, nationally, only about 275 counties and municipalities included them in their smoke-free workplace policy rules. As of the beginning of October, the organization cited only two Florida municipalities — Lighthouse Point and Orange Park — that had banned them. Three counties — Alachua, Clay and Marion — had banned them in unincorporated areas.
Those bans are limited to publicly owned buildings and property because, Frick said, only the state has power to prohibit them in such places as restaurants.
In the Tampa Bay area, local regulations vary. Some cities, such as Pinellas Park, don't ban e-cigarettes at all. Others, including Clearwater and Tampa, ban their use by municipal employees in any city building or on any public property. The bans don't apply to contractors or other members of the public, but they are "encouraged to voluntarily comply," said Vince Capitino, benefits manager for the city of Tampa.
It's unclear where St. Petersburg and Pinellas County stand. Officials there could not be reached for comment.
If the ban is approved in Largo, it would ideally apply to members of the public and employees. It also would follow the same general outline as the city's current nonsmoking policy, Robinson said. The current policy generally bars smoking in city-owned buildings and on city-owned property except in designated smoking areas.
Gary Wilder, manager of Lizard Juice, a Largo-based national distributor of e-cigarettes, said he has no problems with the proposed ban on smoking them inside city-owned buildings. The vapors do have a fragrance that can bother some people, he said.
But more intense bans that include outdoor areas are "an over-reaction" to a product that's safe, Wilder said.
"There are no studies at all that prove this to be harmful in any direction," he said.
Contact Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes.