Assembly committee approves ban of e-cigarettes

If a proposed law is passed, New York could become the first state to ban electronic cigarettes.

Legislation currently before the New York State Assembly would ban the cigarettes use across the state until their safety could be studied and regulated. Tuesday afternoon, the Assembly's Health Committee approved a measure to ban e-cigarettes in New York until the federal government decides how to regulate their use.

The devices are touted on the Internet as a smoke free alternative to cigarettes. While manufacturers claim e-cigarettes are safe, a study by the Food and Drug Administration found the cigarettes contained carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, which is an ingredient used in antifreeze.

New York is not the first state to attempt to control use of the device. Oregon sued manufacturers of e-cigarettes in 2009, claiming the companies were making false claims about the safety of the product and marketing them to children. E-cigarettes are easily available on the internet and at shopping centers.

Pat Briest, Coordinator of St. Joseph's smoking cessation program, is concerned about use of e-cigarettes by children as well, since she says the cigarettes come in sweet flavors like chocolate and strawberry.

"Young people can purchase the product, and there is nothing regulating what age you have to be to purchase," she says.

Facebook recently banned ads for e-cigarettes from its website over concerns they were targeting children. Advocates who have used the devices to quit or cut down on smoking say the devices are effective and safe. Briest says the devices contain nicotine and can be just as addicting as cigarettes.

"The electronic cigarette is manufactured as a product to help people quit smoking, but that is not what is happening. The devices actually maintain an addiction or in some cases they can escalate a nicotine addiction in an individual," she says.

Currently, children can buy the plastic devices, which contain nicotine and aren't covered by indoor smoking bans. Health officials say e-cigarettes are just another addictive habit, one that can hook kids early. But advocates say it helps people cut down or quit smoking tobacco.

The devices advertised heavily on the Internet promise all the pleasures of smoking without the deadly health threat.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

More on this story from the AP:

New York lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would make the state the first to ban electronic cigarettes, devices touted on the Internet in ads promising all the pleasures of smoking without the deadly health threat.

Health officials say e-cigarettes are just another addictive habit, one that can hook kids early and legally on smoking. But advocates who have used the devices to quit or cut down smoking tobacco call the battery-operated smokes a miracle.

"E-cigarettes are for some people a tool for enabling them to continue their nicotine addictions when they are someplace where they can't smoke," said Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, whose panel passed the bill Tuesday. "I don't think that's good for public health."

The Manhattan Democrat said the manufacturers should prove to the federal Food and Drug Administration that e-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation aid in order to sell them to adults.

Advocates - who say there is a nationwide grass-roots movement to keep e-cigarettes available - say the proof is in their health.

"I find it difficult to believe that my wheezing and productive morning cough would have magically disappeared sometime between March 2009 and now if I had continued smoking, waiting for someone to proclaim e-cigarettes 100 percent safe," said Elaine Keller of Springfield, Va. She is vice president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association.

"Why do politicians and organizations that claim to be protecting public health want to take away options that could save smokers' lives?" she said Tuesday.

The bill's sponsor was moved to act by the flood of Internet ads for the products and sales at shopping malls.

"So I did some research," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and 20-year smoker who quit more than a dozen years ago. "I found what is in the e-cigarettes is a mystery."

She wants to ban them in New York until they are more thoroughly investigated and regulated.

Her bill was approved in the Assembly last year but stalled in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. Senate Health Committee Chairman Kemp Hannon, a Republican, said the bill likely will be considered by his committee and a hearing may be held, but it's too early to predict what will happen with the proposal.

E-cigarettes have prompted debate nationwide since they became widely available in the United States in 2006. But as either a tobacco cigarette substitute or a much more extensively tested and restricted drug-delivery device, the future of e-cigarettes will likely be decided by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA lost a court case last year after trying to treat e-cigarettes as drug-delivery devices, rather than tobacco products, because e-cigarettes heat nicotine extracted from tobacco.

"Maybe it stops some from smoking, but maybe it helps some kid start," said Russ Sciandra, director of the Center for a Tobacco Free New York.

Powerful lobbies are involved. If treated as a tobacco product, e-cigarettes would avoid the research and trials required of competitors in the pharmaceutical industry, including anti-smoking patches and inhalers. As a medical device, e-cigarettes could draw opposition from that powerful lobby as a fresh and less expensive competitor.

The supporters of e-cigarettes are now watching New York "very closely. They kind of snuck up on us," said Keller.

She said she has been tobacco free since March 2009 after 45 years of smoking. She said her group amounts to a grass-roots effort of those who feel the government has blocked this "miracle" product.

"There is no industry support on this thing at all," Keller said of the organization. "We want to keep it this way so no one can say we are a shill for the tobacco, drug or e-cigarette industry."

She also tries to recast the safety question.

"I can't point to anything to say it's 100 percent safe," Keller said. "The thing is, it only needs to be safer. The only standard is that it's safer than smoking."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)