Proposal would let jail inmates 'light' up

Sep. 02, 2014 @ 08:01 AM

County jails currently are no-smoking zones, but some legislators favor modifying that.

House Bill 1133, which passed the House this year but failed to clear the Senate, would allow jails to sell electronic cigarettes to inmates who are involved in authorized smoking-cessation programs. Jails also could give or sell inmates smoking-cessation items such as nicotine lozenges or patches.

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated and look like conventional cigarettes but do not burn tobacco. They work by heating a cartridge containing a solution that includes nicotine and sometimes flavors, which produces a vapor but no smoke. Many brands of e-cigarettes have an end that lights up when the product is in use, mimicking the appearance of a conventional tobacco cigarette. Use of the products is described as “vaping” rather than smoking.

State law bans the use of tobacco products in jails or confinement facilities, causing inmates who smoke to go through nicotine withdrawal, which can cause irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and increased appetite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

E-cigarettes currently are not banned by state law, but a state ban takes effect Dec. 1, and already many jails, including Caldwell County's, do not allow them. Sheriff Alan Jones said he would oppose allowing the use of e-cigarettes in his jail.

"Right now I don't think it's a good idea, and I have no plans of selling them any time soon because Caldwell County policy says no tobacco products are allowed on county-owned property," Jones said in an e-mail. "It's something I'll look at in the future, but not right now."

The Burke/Catawba District Confinement Facility and the Alexander County Jail also do not allow e-cigarettes, but Alexander officials have not ruled them out, said Capt. Mike Harrison of the Alexander County Sheriff's Office.

"We've had vendors wanting us to sell them, but that may be a conversation in the future," Harrison said.

One benefit for jails to sell e-cigarettes in their canteens would be extra revenue, said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice-president and general counsel for the N.C. Sheriff's Assocaition, which backs House Bill 1133.

"In many cases, the money goes to an inmate welfare fund to help pay for canteen items for inmates who don't have money, or for TV's, exercise equipment or other items," he said.