Gage County inmates will no longer be allowed to inhale tobacco vapor after the Gage County Board of Supervisors updated the county employee handbook to include a ban on electronic cigarettes.

The controversial e-cigarettes are plastic tubes that resemble rolled cigarettes that carry nicotine into the lungs through water vapor rather than smoke.

Currently, the e-cigarette industry is lightly regulated, and the vapor-based cigarettes have been used as a loophole in areas that banned traditional cigarette use.

“I think that we all agreed that the e-cigs should be a part of (the handbook),” said County Board member Kathy Setzer. “I’m sure it’s not in the old one because e-cigs were not around five or six years ago when the last one was approved. It was one of the first things we wanted put in there because of the potential and the unknowns with it.”

The updated handbook has been in the works for several months. Elected officials in various county offices, such as the Clerk, assessor and treasurer, examined the book on multiple occasions under the guidance of the County Human Resources committee, which is made up of Setzer and fellow County Board members John Hill and Dennis Byars.

The news of the regulation came as a surprise to Gage County Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson, who knew an e-cigarette ban was included in the employee handbook but didn’t think it would apply to inmates in the jail.

E-cigs have been available for inmates to purchase at the jail commissary since late last year at a cost of around $7 each.

Gustafson said allowing inmates to use e-cigarettes is a tactic jail workers can use to keep them in line.

“It can be used as a babysitting tool, just like the television and the commissary,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you earn and it’s your right. They were meant to be a mechanism not for their benefit, but for our benefit. It allows us to better control situations.”

The handbook has been subject to change as new issues arise and Gustafson said he intends to bring the issue up for discussion at the next law enforcement committee meeting, but said inmates smoking e-cigarettes is a low priority at the jail.

Gustafson said a total of 71 e-cigarettes have been sold at the jail commissary this year.

Byars expressed allowing inmates to use e-cigarettes could pose a liability issue for the county if an unknown health issue arises from the product down the line.

“This is a building that we control and we have the obligation,” he said. “If people get sick because they have nicotine or arsenic in their blood from that smoke it is our obligation and we’re not going to do it.”

County Clerk Dawn Hill said the tobacco ban dates back to 2007 when the County began prohibiting smoking or mouth tobacco on any county property, including outdoors and in vehicles.

She said the updated handbook went into effect immediately Wednesday after the board approved it.

Reach Scott Koperski at scott.koperski@beatricedailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKoperski.

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