SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House approved a proposal to ban the smoking of hookah pipes and e-cigarettes in public places, after opponents held a hookah pipe smoking demonstration on the Capitol steps then held signs in the gallery urging the bill's defeat.
The bill, HB245, would add those devices to Utah Indoor Clean Air Act's ban on smoking in public places.
Without the ban, e-cigarette smoking could become as commonplace in stores, restaurants or on public transit just like cigarette smoking once was, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane.
"We need to do something," Last told fellow lawmakers. "Just realize if we don't do anything (public establishments) can't stop people from using them."
HB245 would allow existing hookah bars to operate as they do now until at least 2017.
However, that means the businesses would have return Capitol Hill in five years to lobby for an extention.
"I really believe that personal freedoms are going to be just as important in fives years as they are today," said Nathan Porter, the manager of Huka Bar and Grill in Murray, which organized the demonstration on the Capitol steps. "Maybe they don't want any more hookah establishments, but they certainly won't put us out of business."
Porter said his establishment is only one of two in Utah. The bill would not allow him to open any more locations.
Electronic cigarettes allow users to inhale vaporized nicotine without the use of tobacco.
Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake, said the state shouldn't be involved in a person's private decision to smoke tobacco from hookah pipes.
The bill would also hurt businesses, Doughty said. Unlike smoking in bars, which has been banned in Utah since 2007, hookah bars depend on the device to stay in business, he said.
Last summer, the Utah Department of Health adopted a rule banning the use of hookah and e-cigarettes in public places but has not enforced the rule awaiting legislative action on the issue.
Manufacturers of electronic cigarettes claim the battery-powered device is safer than cigarettes, which use tobacco.
However, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, e-cigarettes contain harmful levels of nicotine, a substance the agency classifies as a stimulant drug.
"There is no safe level of tobacco smoke," said David Neville, spokesman for the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program at the Utah Department of Health.
With tobacco cigarettes a user generally knows how much nicotine is being consumed. "They know if they are a half-a-pack-a-day smoker. When it comes to an electronic cigarette, you just don't know. You just keep on smoking," Neville said.
The measure, which passed on a 45-31 vote, now moves to the Senate.