Tobacco industry lobbyists and public health advocates battled it out Thursday in a D.C. Council committee chamber over whether the city should restrict electronic cigarettes from all of the same places that it bans those rolled with tobacco.
In the absence of any federal guidelines on the increasingly popular devices, states and cities have scrambled to decide how to treat them. On Thursday, those for and against a bill to create “parity” with tobacco cigarettes, restricting them from all indoor areas, patios and bus stops, presented wildly different views of the battery-operated inhalers.
To hear anti-smoking groups tell it, the vapor they emit contains traces of chemicals found in anti-freeze; are dangerously popular with middle school and high school students as a means to experiment with drugs; and could prove carcinogenic to those who inhale and those subject to secondhand exposure to the vapor.
Industry lobbyists, chiefly Bruce Bereano, a college fraternity brother of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), called such descriptions reckless and said restricting the use of e-cigarettes would be “grossly premature” without further research.
Bereano pulled out a pen-like e-cigarette from his blazer and waved it around at the witness table. “This is an e-cigarette, and there are absolutely no chemicals that come out of here — no chemicals,” he said.
“There is no carcinogen, there are no toxics. All there is is nicotine and a liquid . . . and there’s no credible evidence that nicotine in and of itself causes any harmful and fatal diseases,” he said.
E-cigarettes can resemble a cigarette or a pen. They contain nicotine cartridges and often artificial flavoring such as mint, chocolate or strawberry. When a user draws on an e-cigarette, a light-emitting diode causes the tip to glow, and the inhaled nicotine vapor is exhaled in a way that resembles cigarette smoke but dissipates more quickly.
The Food and Drug Administration has said it intends to start regulating e-cigarettes, and the industry is scrambling to lobby Congress to shape those restrictions.
Bereano said that there is no risk of secondhand smoke and that using e-cigarettes “is something that adults can and should be allowed to use,” although he also suggested that he was skeptical of claims about traditional secondhand smoke.
“Secondhand smoke — allegedly, and it’s supposedly confirmed that secondhand smoke is harmful to those who are not smoking around you,” he said.
With e-cigarettes, “this is not that,” Bereano said. “It doesn’t even come close to it. So the premise of equating it has no basis.”
Angela Bradbery, a founder of Smokefree D.C., said the prudent course would be to limit the use of e-cigarettes until there is more research.
“The tobacco industry says, ‘Oh trust us,’ but we certainly have heard that before,” she said.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who introduced the bill to restrict e-cigarettes, is also chairwoman of the council’s health committee.
Her bill, co-introduced by council member David Grosso (I-At Large), would also ban sales of e-cigarettes to minors, as Maryland did last year.
During Thursday’s hearing, Alexander called e-cigarettes the “wild, wild West of smoking devices” and said clarity is needed on where e-cigarretes can be used.
“Businesses may not even be aware — I have seen people smoke in restaurants, and really, the restaurant staff, they don’t know what to say when you tell them it’s not a cigarette or it’s not a tobacco product,” she said.