Years after being exiled to New York City’s sidewalks by a ban on smoking in indoor public places, some smokers relished electronic cigarettes as a way to come in from the cold.
Now they’re down to their last few puffs after the City Council voted 43-8 Thursday to expand the ban to include the devices.
Also Thursday, the council paved the way for an eventual ban on plastic foam containers and approved the creation of a website that will help the public track federal dollars budgeted for Superstorm Sandy-related damages. The flurry of activity – more than two dozen introductions and resolutions were passed – came on the council’s last legislative session of the year.
Speaker Christine Quinn said before the vote on e-cigarettes that scientists can’t say yet whether the nicotine inhalers, which are tobacco-free but still deliver a vaporized dose of nicotine vapor, are truly safe.
She said allowing the devices in places where cigarettes are now banned also could “renormalize” smoking and undermine the public perception that the habit is now acceptable only outdoors or in private.
“We don’t want a step backward with that,” she said.
The vote came amid sharp disagreement within public health circles over how to treat e-cigarettes.
Manufacturers say the vapor they emit is harmless, and most scientists agree that regular smokers who switch to e-cigarettes are lowering their health risk substantially.
The devices, though, aren’t heavily regulated. And experts say consumers can’t yet be sure whether they are safe either for users or people exposed to second-hand vapor puffs.
Like regular cigarettes, the nicotine in e-cigarettes is also highly addictive. People who use them may be unable to quit, even if they want to. That has raised concerns that a new generation of young people could gravitate toward e-cigarettes and wind up hooked for life or even switch to tobacco cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration has said it intends to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products but has yet to issue any rules, leaving manufacturers free to advertise while regular cigarette ads are banned.
Several states, including New Jersey, Arkansas, Utah and North Dakota, have already expanded their indoor smoking bans to include e-cigarettes. Other bans have been proposed in several big cities. About half of the states restrict sales to minors.
At a City Council hearing earlier this month, city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley urged the council to approve a ban, saying the city couldn’t risk rolling back the progress it has made driving down smoking rates.
The American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids agreed. Other public health advocates did not. They said that in a nation where roughly 1 in 5 adults are hooked on indisputably deadly cigarettes, safer alternatives should be embraced, not discouraged, even if science hasn’t rendered a final verdict.
E-cigarette manufacturers say they don’t believe their products will be used as a gateway drug to cigarettes, and they have criticized New York’s proposed ban as a rush to judgment.
“Companies like us want to be responsible, but when you have municipalities prematurely judge what should be and what shouldn’t be, based not on the science, I think it does the public a disservice,” said Miguel Martin, president of e-cigarette brand Logic.
While the measure’s advocates say e-cigarettes resemble tobacco smokes enough to confuse restaurateurs trying to enforce smoking laws and send a message of social acceptability, manufacturers say that reasoning is muddled.
“That’s like saying we shouldn’t be able to sell water because it looks like vodka,” Martin said.
The foam bill allows lawmakers to ban the product – technically called expanded polystyrene foam – if after a yearlong study the commissioner of the Sanitation Department finds the material can’t be recycled effectively. It takes a long time to break down in landfills, and there’s debate over how readily it can be recycled once it’s soiled by food.
An online database to track the use of Sandy funds already exists and is operated by the Bloomberg administration. Thursday’s bill will update the website, creating a searchable, interactive online tool that allows users to look-up by zip code information about how federal Sandy dollars are being spent.