On Thursday, the New York City Council voted to expand the city’s ban on smoking indoors to electronic cigarettes. The move is the latest in a series of efforts to discourage tobacco and nicotine use under outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) administration. New York City has enacted the highest tobacco taxes in the nation, and recently became the largest city to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.
Bloomberg approved the city’s landmark indoor smoking ban ten years ago. Since then, New York smoking rates have dropped significantly, and a 2007 study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that there were eight percent fewer hospital admissions due to heart attacks in the year immediately after the ban’s adoption.
However, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, have become an exponentially more popular smoking method in the decade since the original ban. E-cig sales have doubled every year since 2008 and are likely to hit a new high of $1.7 billion in 2013. Advertisements tend to promote the products as tobacco alternatives that don’t have harmful additives that you can also smoke at work, restaurants, bars, and other indoor facilities without being a threat to public health or other people’s olfactory senses. Council members who supported the new indoor ban pointed out that behavior could be harmful for impressionable children who see people smoking inside.
Reliable data on e-cigs’ safety are scarce, too. In an interview with ThinkProgress from earlier this year, the American Lung Association’s Director of National Advocacy Erika Sward explained, “There has been very limited independent evidence done to find out what the ultimate consequences are either to the individual user, but also to the public health consequence.”
One 2009 FDA analysis of 18 e-cigs found that half of the vapor samples collected “contained carcinogens, and that one contained diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze.” In September, 40 states attorneys general — including New York’s — sent a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg to urging more stringent oversight of e-cig manufacturing and marketing. The agency has promised upcoming guidance on the issue.