Raleigh, N.C. — A bill awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory's signature would allow county jails across North Carolina to sell e-cigarettes to inmates.
The provision, requested by the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, is tucked into House Bill 1133, the Technical Corrections omnibus. It reverses a law passed earlier this year that would have banned inmates from possessing "vapor products," or electronic cigarettes.
The measure specifically gives jails the authority to "give or sell" inmates e-cigarettes or smoking cessation items such as nicotine lozenges or patches. It does not apply to state prisons.
"There are a number of jails across the state that allow their inmates to purchase these e-cigarettes," said Sheriffs' Association director Eddie Caldwell.
Smoking was banned on the grounds of North Carolina prisons and jails in March 2010. Since then, however, jail staff have had to contend with inmates suffering from nicotine withdrawal. Some have turned to e-cigarettes as the solution.
"Traditional cigarettes create a risk of fire, a risk of secondhand smoke and other things like that," Caldwell said, "that at least as far as I’ve heard are not a problem with e-cigarettes."
Under the provision, it would still be a misdemeanor for anyone outside the jail to give an e-cigarette to an inmate. Backers of the provision say that's because many are made of metal and could be turned in homemade knives or weapons.
But it would no longer be a crime for an inmate to possess an e-cigarette as long as he or she bought it from the jail commissary. According to Caldwell, the commissaries would be allowed to sell specially made plastic e-cigarettes that couldn't easily be turned into weapons.
The jails also could make a profit from the sales.
"Typically, the canteen does make money for the county. In a lot of cases, that funds the inmate welfare fund, which provides for inmates that don't have any money," Caldwell said.
Early versions of the bill would have allowed the sale of the devices only to inmates "involved in an authorized smoking cessation program." That language was removed after health advocates argued that e-cigarettes are not an FDA-approved smoking cessation tool. Studies have shown they're no more effective than nicotine patches in the long run.
However, health advocates still have concerns about local governments selling an addictive substance – nicotine – to a captive population for a profit.
"Why do these e-cigarettes need to be provided at all?” asked North Carolina Alliance for Health director Pam Seamans. "It certainly makes us scratch our heads.
"All state prisons are tobacco-free – they have to help [inmates] break that addiction," Seamans said.
Scientists still don't know enough about the long-term effect of using the vapor devices or inhaling the vapor secondhand, she said.
"If they think that using an electronic cigarette in a smoke-free environment is OK, that’s questionable in terms of health effects," she said.
According to the state Department of Public Health, 26 of the 65 compounds found in e-cigarettes are on the FDA's list of harmful and potentially harmful substances. Seamans says the FDA is in the process of regulating the devices as a tobacco product but hasn't yet been able to say precisely what's in them.
RJR Vapor, a subsidiary of tobacco giant Reynolds American, is in the process of rolling out a new disposable electronic cigarette, Vuse, that will be manufactured in North Carolina.
If the governor signs the bill or allows it to become law without his signature, it would take effect Dec. 1.