New Yorkers who turned to electronic cigarettes to keep smoking in restaurants, offices or even libraries are down to their last few puffs in such places.
The City Council's voted 43-8 Thursday to include e-cigarettes in the ban on smoking in public indoor places. Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to sign the measure. The ban would then take effect in four months.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn said before the vote on e-cigarettes that the evidence on whether nicotine inhalers are truly safe is insufficient. 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 in the privacy of one's own home.
"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. The tobacco-free smokes heat up a chemical solution and emit vapors while giving smokers their nicotine fix.
Manufacturers say the mist 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 U.S. 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.
The American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids supported expanding New York City's ban on to e-cigarettes 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.
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