NYC Health Commissioner Says E-Cigarettes Must Be Banned Because They Look Like the Real Thing


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Yesterday the New York City Council held what The New York Times describes as "one of the most scientifically vague and emotionally charged health committee hearings in recent memory." The scientifically vague part was the justification offered by supporters of a ban on the use of electronic cigarettes in "public places" such as bars and restaurants. The main sponsor of the proposed ban, Councilman James Gennaro, has said it is aimed at protecting children who might mistake e-cigarettes for the real thing, conclude that smoking must be cool again, and proceed directly to a pack-a-day habit that will endanger their health and shorten their lives. Perhaps recognizing that some people might deem this scenario implausible, ban backers offered a few more arguments at yesterday's hearing:

The health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, said electronic cigarettes were such a recent invention that he could not say whether they were hazardous to the health of those smoking them or those who might breathe in secondhand vapor. He said that they do put out fine particles and chemicals, and "I certainly can't guarantee that that is safe."

He said the problem with e-cigarettes was that they made smoking socially acceptable, and that they were a "bridge" for people who went back to smoking regular cigarettes.

"Does it help people quit, or does it help people not quit?" Dr. Farley asked, rhetorically.

Then Dr. Farley indulged in a bit of theater himself, fishing around in his shirt pocket, saying, "Just to give you an idea, I've got one here somewhere," before pulling out an electronic cigarette that he pronounced "indistinguishable" from a real one. He and other supporters of the ban say e-cigarettes confuse people like bartenders and restaurant owners who have to enforce the existing smoking ban, making that ban harder to enforce.

The rationale for the smoking ban was protection of bystanders, and Farley concedes there is no evidence that e-cigarette vapor—which consists almost entirely of propylene glycol (an FDA-approved food additive) and water, plus nicotine and flavoring agents—poses a risk to vapers, let alone the people around them. Still, he "can't guarantee" it is safe, since  e-cigarettes "do put out fine particles and chemicals." So do cooking, perfume, and diner flatulence. Can Farley guarantee those are safe? If not, shouldn't he be demanding a ban on these emissons as well? 

Farley supplements Gennaro's concern about confused children with sympathy for confused bartenders and restaurateurs, who might tell a patron "you can't smoke in here," only to discover that he is in fact vaping. To spare them the embarrassment of such a faux pas, Farley proposes making it illegal to impersonate a smoker. That is one approach. Another would be for the managers of bars and restaurants to instruct their employees in the differences between a burning stick of dried vegetable matter and an e-cigarette, which contains no tobacco and produces no smoke. It is even possible that waiters and bartenders have begun to figure this out on their own. But if bar and restaurant owners do not want to deal with this hassle, they can always ban vaping in their establishments, keeping in mind that they might lose some customers to vaper-friendly competitors. 

Farley's third argument is that e-cigarettes are a "bridge" that leads former smokers back to conventional cigarettes. As with secondhand vapor, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this hypothesis, and the hearing room was full of former smokers who had the opposite experience: E-cigarettes helped them stop smoking, thereby dramatically reducing the health risks they face. That was what made the hearing "emotionally charged": A bunch of self-righteous, know-it-all politicians and bureaucrats want to legally ostracize people who have found a much less dangerous way to get their nicotine fix. By lumping vaping in with smoking, an e-cigarette ban will discourage other smokers from trying a product that could literally save their lives. All in the name of health.