The products come in a variety of flavors and do not burn tobacco. Instead, battery-operated inhalers heat nicotine into a vapor, which apparently has some of the same stimulant effect of cigarettes.
In recent years, celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio have been photographed with the products. And because they do not produce smoke, e-cigarettes generally have escaped regulation from states and cities.
In the District, it has become common to see people puffing on e-cigarettes in restaurants, office buildings, bars and even Metrobuses. But council members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced a bill at Tuesday’s council session to change that.
If approved, e-cigarettes would be classified as cigarettes under the city’s indoor smoking ban. The law prohibits smoking in all public places and allows business owners to ban smoking on the sidewalk in front of their property.
In an interview, Alexander said e-cigarettes are being “used to usurp the smoking ban.”
“It is smoking, is an inhalant and it’s similar to smoking,” said Alexander, chairwoman of the Health Committee. “We don’t know what the ill effects of this are, and it’s still a bother to some people.”
Numerous states, including Connecticut, are considering adding e-cigarettes to their indoor smoking ban.
In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would regulate e-cigarettes as it does tobacco, a less restrictive stance than some had advocated. But the FDA is continuing to review the products.
“Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products,” an agency spokeswoman said.
But manufacturers say e-cigarettes result in neither secondhand smoke nor proven health risks to the users. Cigarettes, they say, contain more than a thousand chemicals that are not present in e-cigarettes.
Blu Cigs, one of the largest e-cigarettes manufacturers in the United States, recently alleged in a statement that the tobacco industry was behind efforts to crack down on the industry.
“From misinformed lawmakers to scared big tobacco companies, actions are being made to limit the sale and use of electronic cigarettes,” the company said.
Alexander said she’s not worried that her bill could make it more difficult for tobacco smokers to give up the habit. Instead, she said, the products “may encourage more people to start smoking.”
“You are getting that same nicotine derivative, and it’s just attracting more, younger people,” Alexander said.