Electronic cigarettes have boomed in popularity over the last couple of years, according to the city's health department, but plans to regulate the plastic sticks in the same fashion as their paper counterparts has set up a serious debate about the untested product..
The City Council's health committee is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on legislation that would regulate e-cigs the same way as the city does other tobacco products, banning them from use in parks, restaurants and bars.
E-cig companies say their products are safer because they don't produce tobacco smoke, while health experts argue there are too many unknown factors, making it better to be safe than sorry when it comes to restrictions.
"We cannot take the words of the tobacco industry because they have had a long history of lying about the science," said Chris Bostic, deputy director for policy for the national anti-smoking non profit Action on Smoking and Health.
Since the e-cigs don't contain tobacco they are currently exempt from the city's regulatory laws. However, last month the mayor signed a law that set the minimum age for purchasing e-cigs at 21.
Spike Babaian, co-owner of the electronic cigarette chain Vape New York, said she feels the city is unnecessarily punishing her industry, which she maintained is trying to help smokers quit. Babaian, who said her stores have served 6,000 New York customers over the last two years, also said that stigmatizing e-cig users with traditional smokers would make those trying to quit revert to old habits. "Putting a cellphone to your head back in 1990 was also fearful, but we didn't ban them," she said.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, however, said the e-cigarettes in fact encourage smoking. There is no way to track the number of e-cig smokers in the U.S. since the industry isn't regulated but city health officials maintain that total is on the rise.
"They may introduce a new generation to nicotine addiction, which could lead to their smoking combustion cigarettes. In addition, electronic cigarettes' similarity in appearance to cigarettes makes it far more difficult to enforce our current smoking laws, which have saved many lives," Farley said in a statement.
City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who sits on the health committee, said he is on the fence about the issue. He agrees that there needs to be more research into the health effects of the e-cigs but said he saw one of his staffers kick the habit by switching to one.
Vallone, who had a discussion about the e-cigs on his Facebook page, said he and his colleagues will pay close attention to the hearing today.
"We're going to need to learn a whole lot very quickly before we can make any decision on this," he said.