ONALASKA — The Onalaska Common Council has had a change of heart on e-cigarettes.
Last month, the council voted 4-2 to reject an ordinance change that would have prohibited use of e-cigarettes anywhere smoking is banned, including bars.
On Tuesday, the council voted unanimously to ban e-cigarettes from public confined spaces after getting additional input at a committee meeting last week from health-care professionals and anti-smoking activists.
Brenda Rooney of Onalaska, an epidemiologist at Gundersen Health System, testified at last week’s committee meeting and reiterated her opposition to e-cigarettes at Tuesday’s council meeting.
The position taken by Rooney, Dr. Todd Mahr and others who argued for the ban was that e-cigarettes are unregulated and the vapor emitted from e-cigarettes contains harmful chemicals, including known carcinogens and could trigger asthma attacks in bystanders.
In a letter to the council, Mahr said it is “factually incorrect” to assume that e-cigarette vapor is harmless, and Rooney agreed.
“We just don’t know the safety of e-cigarettes, so why would we err on the side of allowing it?” Rooney asked council members Tuesday.
Council member Erik Sjolander, who sits on the Judiciary Committee that considered the ordinance change, originally opposed the e-cigarette ban. After Tuesday’s meeting, he said he’d done more research that swayed his opinion.
“There are obvious allergy concerns,” he said.
In addition, Sjolander said he was walking out of a restaurant last Friday and encountered a cloud of e-cigarette vapor that smelled just like a cigar.
Another problem with e-cigarettes, Sjolander noted, is the devices can be used to consume illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine or THC, the active chemical in marijuana.
“You never know what’s going to be in them,” Sjolander said.
The council voted unanimously for the e-cigarette ban ordinance, even council member Jack Pogreba, who strongly opposed the ordinance and voted against it at last week’s committee meeting.
The council also voted unanimously for another ordinance that adopts the state law that prohibits purchase or possession of e-cigarettes by minors.
While Pogreba has spoken out at council meetings for the rights of e-cigarette users, he was not so keen on giving city residents the right to keep chickens.
Council members discussed the possibility of allowing city residents to keep chickens. La Crosse is among a growing number of cities that allows a limited number of chickens to be kept within city limits, and there have been some residents pushing to have Onalaska follow suit.
Cali Endris and Samantha Kabat both spoke at the council meeting in favor of allowing chickens, arguing that humanely treated, home-raised chickens produce healthier eggs and meat, and that chickens eat bugs and aerate the soil.
Endris suggested that it would make sense to put a limit of three to five chickens per household and not allow roosters, which can be noisy. She said she didn’t think it would be right to require people who want to keep chickens to get the permission of their neighbors.
After all, she said, people now can keep pit bulls and pythons without getting the OK from neighbors.
Council member Harvey Bertrand said he didn’t think the city should spend time working on a chicken ordinance when there are other higher priorities, but other council members, including Bob Muth, disagreed.
“I don’t think it’s out of line to give them a chance and take a look at it,” Muth said.
Pogreba acknowledged that chickens are quieter than dogs. But, he said, “I’m reluctant to agree to have chickens in neighborhoods,” noting he is allergic to chickens.
Council members did not vote on the chicken question, but the matter is likely to come before the council again, probably after discussion in August by the Plan Commission.