ALBANY – With their sales skyrocketing but safety questions unresolved, electronic cigarettes came under attack Monday by state officials and public health groups.
Efforts are intensifying to put the product under the umbrella of New York’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which would ban their use in public places from restaurants to concert halls, just like regular cigarettes.
Health organizations, including a leading tobacco researcher at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, said during a Senate hearing near the Capitol that there are too many questions about e-cigarettes to continue to permit their use in public places. New York City recently banned the products – which provide nicotine through a vapor-release system to users – from public indoor locations. A smokers’ rights group in March filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.
Andrew Hyland, chairman of the department of health behavior at Roswell Park, said there’s “reason to be hopeful” about the potential that e-cigarettes can turn some smokers away from traditional cigarettes, which scientists say have far more toxins than the new electronic devices.
“But that’s a big if,” Hyland said, who added that cigarette companies are making many of the same health claims and using the same marketing techniques as they did with regular cigarettes a generation or more ago.
One analyst has estimated that e-cigarette sales will surpass regular cigarette sales within a decade, and that use of the devices doubled among young people from 2011 to 2012.
Hyland said the new form of nicotine delivery “unequivocally” poses a risk, with ingredients that include such toxins as formaldehyde. “It’s a matter of a little bit of poison versus a lot of poison,” he said.
The 2003 Clean Indoor Air Act banned smoking in nearly all public places, including job sites, bars, public transportation, hospitals, zoos, bingo halls, school grounds and all public and private universities.
Industry officials say the e-cigarettes were invented and marketed to permit people to get access to nicotine without exposing people to second-hand tobacco smoke.
While the tobacco companies and others who make the e-cigarettes did not testify at Monday’s hearing, retailers who sell the product and a group representing restaurant and bar owners urged caution for senators considering a ban on the e-cigarettes, as well another measure to restrict the sale of liquid products used in them. Critics say these products are being marketed to young people, including many who have never smoked and for whom the devices could be a gateway to traditional cigarettes.
“We hope the New York Senate has a high bar for infringing on the rights of its citizens,” said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association.
Wexler, along with James Calvin, head of a group that lobbies on behalf of convenience store owners, said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still studying e-cigarettes and that the state should wait on the work of scientists before changing state policy on a legal product.
Calvin said e-cigarettes have already become “the long-awaited viable solution to quitting combustible cigarettes.”
Under questioning from lawmakers, Calvin said, like traditional cigarettes, consumers will just find other ways to obtain products if the liquid e-cigarettes are banned in New York. He cited past experiences seen with tobacco products and consumers going to other states, the Internet or Indian retailers. “So we lose the sale but the consumption is still going on,” he said.
Health groups called the criticism a throw-back to the debates over second-hand smoke, which even business groups Monday at the hearing acknowledged was eventually proven dangerous. But Wexler said that, with the science uncertain, Albany is rushing to judgment on an issue that will affect businesses across New York.
“The association sees this as another attempt by government to dictate how New Yorkers run their businesses and live their lives, adding costs to the bottom line and eroding their freedom to operate their businesses as they desire,” Wexler said.
Other bills, which have some level of industry support, include new package labeling requirements and tougher efforts to keep e-cigarettes from being sold to teens.
Dr. Harlan Juster, director of the state Health Department’s bureau of tobacco control, noted how e-cigarette companies are selling products with flavors like rainbow sherbet and cookies and cream. Those marketing attempts are “clearly meant to appeal to young people.”
While many ex-smokers say e-cigarettes helped them break their regular cigarette habits, Juster said he worries they glamorize the act of smoking, attracting more teens to smoking and leading many smokers to using both e-cigarettes and tobacco products.
Even if the e-cigarettes have fewer toxins than regular cigarettes, that “does not mean they are safer for the individual or the population as a whole,” Juster said. He called the argument by manufacturers that the new products are safe “incomplete and flawed.” He reminded senators that companies making e-cigarettes include the same tobacco firms found to have engaged in racketeering in marketing cigarettes years ago.