Fair board bans e-cigs, hears from opponents of elephant rides

By Joe Tash

Don’t plan on firing up an e-cigarette after downing a cinnamon roll, deep-fried Twinkie or slice of chocolate-covered bacon at this year’s San Diego County Fair.

The board that oversees the state-owned fairgrounds voted unanimously at its meeting on Tuesday, March 11, to ban the use of e-cigarettes and other similar devices during the San Diego County Fair. Last year, the 22nd District Agricultural Association board outlawed smoking tobacco cigarettes during the fair.

About 10 people spoke in favor of the e-cigarette ban at Tuesday’s meeting, and there were no speakers against the action.

“I just encourage the board to seriously consider banning e-cigs,” said Ray McEdward, who said his asthma is aggravated by the vapor from the electronic devices. “They’re not the harmless items everyone thinks they are.”

E-cigarettes are battery-powered cylinders containing a nicotine-infused fluid that turns into vapor when heated. Some critics of allowing their use in public places, such as Barbara Gordon, who spoke before the fair board Tuesday, said the devices are being marketed to young people by flavoring the vapor like cotton candy, bubble gum or watermelon.

“This is out of the Big Tobacco playbook,” she said, noting that tobacco companies own e-cigarette product lines.

Fair board member Adam Day said the agency set a “great standard” by becoming the first county fair in the state and one of the largest in the nation to go smoke-free.

“E-cigs weren’t on our radar a couple of years ago when we did that,” he said, but allowing their use during the fair “sends the wrong message to children and youth.”

Board member David Watson said it would be confusing to the public to allow the electronic devices while banning tobacco cigarettes.

In prohibiting e-cigarettes from the fair, the 22nd DAA board adopted similar language as an ordinance also approved Tuesday by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. That ordinance expanded the definition of e-cigarettes to include electronic pipes, hookahs and other similar devices, in a larger ordinance intended to restrict access to tobacco products by minors and limit the public’s exposure to second-hand smoke.

Last month, the city of Solana Beach prohibited the use of e-cigarettes wherever tobacco use is banned, and Del Mar is considering a similar prohibition. Carlsbad, Vista and Poway have also prohibited public use of e-cigarettes.

Although research is not conclusive on whether e-cigarettes encourage teens to move on to tobacco cigarettes – or whether e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes – a number of health organizations have advocated for restrictions on their use.

The California Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee, which oversees tobacco control, education and research efforts in the state, voted last year to oppose the use of e-cigarettes in all areas where other tobacco products are banned, according to a report included with Tuesday’s 22nd DAA board agenda.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, a number of people opposed to elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair addressed the board during the public comment period. The issue has proven controversial in recent years, as animal rights activists argued that the rides should not be allowed, while others want them to continue.

Jane Cartmill, president of San Diego Animal Advocates, praised the board for banning e-cigarettes, but said it should also end its contract for the elephant rides. “I think the dangers of little children riding on elephants is considerably greater.”

Alison Stanley of the League of Humane Voters addressed fairgrounds general manager Tim Fennell. “You cannot have safety and security as a No. 1 priority and continue to have elephant rides. It’s not possible.”

Board member Watson reminded speakers of the panel’s vote – in 2011 - to revisit the issue of the elephant rides after the upcoming 2014 fair. The timing is related to new guidelines from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, taking effect this year, that advise trainers and handlers to avoid direct contact with elephants and instead work with them from behind barriers.