Smoked Out

Banning e-cigarettes


In December, when the New York City Council voted to prohibit the use of e-cigarettes in public places such as bars and restaurants, the ban's backers conceded there is no evidence that vapor from the battery-powered devices poses a threat to bystanders. But they worried that e-cigarettes would sow confusion because they look too much like the real thing.

Councilman James Gennaro, a sponsor of the ban, warned that children might mistake e-cigarettes for the conventional kind, conclude that smoking must be cool again, and proceed directly to a pack-a-day habit that would threaten their health and shorten their lives. He said "just seeing people smoking things that look identical to cigarettes in subway cars, colleges, and public libraries will tend to re-normalize the act of smoking and send the wrong message to kids."

Similarly, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said "e-cigarettes threaten…to undermine enforcement of the Smoke-Free Air Act," because many models are "designed to look like cigarettes and be used just like them," which "can lead to confusion or confrontation." In other words, a bartender or waiter might tell a patron "you can't smoke in here," only to discover that he is in fact vaping.

To avoid such confusion, the city council made it illegal to impersonate a smoker. It did not consider the possibility that people might learn to distinguish between a burning stick of dried vegetable matter and an e-cigarette, which contains no tobacco and produces no smoke.