In the looming battle over electronic cigarettes, New York City struck early. It’s not surprising. In one of its last moves before avowed tobacco opponent Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office, the city council voted Dec. 19 to subject e-cigarettes to the same regulations as regular smokes.
Los Angeles and Chicago are considering similar bans. Utah, New Jersey and North Dakota have passed legislation prohibiting e-cigarettes wherever regular smoking is barred and many other states are weighing how to regulate the increasingly popular product.
But New York’s action could be particularly influential. When the city banned smoking in all indoor workplaces in 2003, cigarettes were still commonplace in bars and restaurants around the country. That began to change shortly after New York’s law. Today, finding a restaurant anywhere in the country that allows smoking feels like a relic.
The vote comes as a blow to e-cigarette smokers– sometimes called “vapers” because the vaporized nicotine solution they exhale is not smoke– and to e-cigarette manufacturers and specialty retailers who sell them. One of the appeals of electronic cigarettes for adult smokers is the relative convenience of electronic cigarettes, which don’t have the same offensive odor as regular cigarettes and are legal to use indoors in most places.
Vapers and those who provide their fix are understandably peeved. E-cigarette manufacturers argue that regulations that make e-smoking less convenient will only harm smokers who might have switched to a safer product. The FDA doesn’t quite see it that way.
E-cigarette makers are not legally allowed to make claims that their product can help people quit smoking. They have not gone through the agency’s approval process that governs products like the nicotine patch or nicotine gum and proves their efficacy in helping people quit.
Electronic cigarettes are not currently regulated by the federal government – the FDA has said that the agency will assert control over them in December, kicking off the regulatory process, but as we near Christmas, that promise seems increasingly unlikely. Without regulatory standards, the safety of electronic cigarettes varies widely.
Public health officials are eager for regulation so that they can begin to study e-cigarettes and find out how they should fit in the broader efforts to reduce cigarette consumption – the leading cause of preventable death in the Western world.