The New York City Council voted to add electronic cigarettes to the city's strict smoking ban on Thursday in the latest move by outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg to wean people off nicotine.
Bloomberg's detractors have derided him for trying to impose a nanny state in America's largest city, pointing to his bans on smoking, trans fats and the attempt to limit the sale of large sugary drinks. But public-health advocates have applauded those efforts.
Only weeks after New York became the first major city to raise the legal age for buying tobacco to 21, the council voted 43 to 8 to add electronic cigarettes to the city's Smoke-Free Air Act.
If the mayor signs the bill, which he is expected to do, smoking e-cigarettes, or "vaping," would be prohibited at public and private venues such as beaches, parks, restaurants and office buildings after 120 days.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who sponsored the bill, said at a press conference on Thursday that the public use of e-cigarettes threatens to undermine enforcement of anti-smoking laws because their appearance is similar to traditional cigarettes and could "renormalize smoking in public places."
An e-cigarette is a slim, reusable tube that contains nicotine-laced liquid — sometimes with exotic flavors like bubble gum and bacon. As a user puffs on the device, the liquid is heated to release a vapor that, unlike cigarette smoke, contains no tar, which is known to cause cancer and other diseases.
Critics of the law contend that such a ban would do more harm than good.
Richard Carmona — a former U.S. surgeon general and currently a board member at Njoy, one of the Unites States' largest electronic-cigarette manufacturers — recently sent a letter to the council to urge rejection of the bill.
"I'm extremely concerned that a well-intentioned but scientifically unsupported effort like the current proposal to include electronic cigarettes in New York's current smoking ban could constitute a giant step backward in the effort to defeat tobacco smoking," he wrote.
The debate over the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes is far from settled, but a study published recently in The Lancet, a British medical journal, said they are as effective as nicotine patches for smokers trying to kick the habit.
Three states — Utah, North Dakota and New Jersey — have already passed legislation banning e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited.