The cloudy debate around Missoula’s vape laws

Missoula’s new smoking law is at once needed, inevitable, fair and likely to hurt businesses, depending on whom you ask.

The law, which updates and expands the 2006 Montana Clean Indoor Air Act to ban vaping indoors, and all types of smoking in certain outdoor areas, is running through the wringer at Missoula City Council, now in its fourth week of discussion.

Missoula would become the ninth jurisdiction to pass a smoking law expansion in the state — the most recent being Yellowstone County, whose smoking law is being challenged in court even as it takes effect this spring. 

And Missoula, not known for falling in line with the rest of Montana, briefly considered an untried exemption for vape shops, where it’s standard practice to let customers test products in the store. None of the other eight laws exempt vape stores.

That exemption likely won’t happen — nor will the legal troubles — as the Missoula City Council and city-county health department press on, hoping all the troubles go up in smoke.


Keith Bowman was done talking about the vape shop exemption.

The owner and manager of a small chain of Montana vape shops wrangled together hundreds of pages of studies, along with a few of his employees, to try and convince the City Council that vaping is not the same as smoking, and should not be treated as such.

Initially, his efforts paid off. The night of Feb. 26, the first public hearing on the smoking law was delayed by Ward 3 representative Heather Harp, who later said she left that meeting with “a different side of the story.”

Other council members concurred, or at least were reticent to shoot down Bowman’s request that vape shops be exempted wholesale. He was one of about a dozen citizens who asked council to reconsider.

“We came very prepared,” Cole Bashor, owner/manager of Stormcloud Vapour, said last week. “We came and fought it.”

Three of the four vape shops in Missoula were represented that night, and when Harp announced she would delay passing the law, the vapers fist-pumped and grinned.

But during the next hearing, Bowman’s testimony was a bit more frantic. He was speaking after City-County Health Department employees spent 30 minutes telling council how bad an idea an exemption would be.

It would add work hours, it would ignore the FDA’s recommendation that vaping was dangerous, it would encourage more vape shops to start up in town and it would be the only law in the state to add an exemption, they said.

The health department did sketch out an exemption for council to consider, although it was never really discussed in detail.

It would have required vape shops to fill out a form or two and pay a $100 fee to allow vaping in their stores.

“As a city, I don’t want to sanction a vice,” Ward 5 representative Julie Armstrong said. “Is this just a complete step backwards?”

Bowman leaned into the best argument he had — vaping isn’t smoking, so don’t lump them together in the law.

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

The trouble was, Bowman was the only one making the argument. As health department employees reminded the council, the FDA classifies vape juice as a tobacco product.

The FDA classifies vape juice as a “liquid that may contain nicotine, as well as varying compositions of flavorings, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and other ingredients.”



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