The sales pitch for a new “smokeless cigarette” sold at a North Jersey shopping mall couldn’t be clearer.
“Smoke in taxis” flashes across a flat-screen television at the unambiguously named Smoking Everywhere kiosks. “Smoke at sporting events. Smoke at the movies. Smoke at the office.”
To bring the message home, a salesman at Westfield Garden State Plaza took a drag and blew three perfectly formed rings toward shoppers strolling out of J.C. Penney.
According to the product’s marketers, that substance may look like cigarette smoke, but it’s as harmless as water vapor. It’s almost completely odorless, they say, and it dissipates in seconds.
* The Paramus Board of Health on Oct. 26 will introduce an ordinance banning the indoor use of electronic cigarettes, and will vote on the ordinance on Nov. 23, after a public hearing. Both meetings will be at Borough Hall, 1 Jockish Square. The public portion of both meetings is at 8 p.m.
* Information about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s position on electronic cigarettes: fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm172906.htm
But some North Jersey health officials aren’t convinced.
Buoyed by a recent Federal Drug Administration study that found electronic cigarettes may contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals — including diethylene glycol, a substance found in antifreeze — state and local officials have issued warnings about using them or leaving them where they can be reached by children.
Paramus health officials said they are alarmed by reports of people using electronic cigarettes at Westfield Garden State Plaza and are considering a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in indoor public places or work environments, just like regular cigarettes. It would be one of the first bans of its kind in the country.
“The safety of these things cannot be assured,” said Paramus Health Department Director John Hopper. “Our concern is the effect to the non-smoking public who may be breathing the vapors of these things — because they do give off vapors — in public places.”
Paramus has always been a trendsetter in anti-smoking laws, partly because the borough is one of the largest retail centers in the country, Hopper said. He added that Paramus was among the first municipalities to ban the sale of cigarettes from vending machines and from self-service cigarette displays.
Other North Jersey health officials said they will closely follow what happens in Paramus. That includes Tom Cantisano, a health official in Wayne, where there was a Smoking Everywhere kiosk at Willowbrook Mall until it closed last month. Cantisano vowed to carefully research e-cigarettes.
“If there’s any question about the product, public health officials should err on the side of safety,” he said.
Bergen County freeholders are considering modeling a countywide indoor e-cigarette ban after the Paramus ordinance, Freeholder Vernon Walton said.
If successful, the bans would follow an indoor ban passed in Suffolk County, N.Y., in August. Other electronic cigarette restrictions are under consideration in Connecticut, California and Oregon.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wrote in March to the FDA, asking it to take e-cigarettes off the market until the agency can prove their safety.
Designed in many cases to look like actual cigarettes, electronic cigarettes are powered by rechargeable batteries housed in a narrow tube. The tube attaches to a disposable mouthpiece that usually contains nicotine, in a liquid solution available in fruit and candy flavors. When a user inhales, a sensor detects the air movement and triggers a small heater, which reacts with a chemical in the liquid to create a vapor that is drawn into the lungs.
Similar products have been available in the United States since they were first manufactured in China about five years ago. But electronic cigarettes have only recently begun to attract national attention as the number of users expands — along with legal attempts to regulate them.
“Because these products have not been submitted to the FDA for evaluation or approval, at this time the agency has no way of knowing, except for the limited testing it has performed, the levels of nicotine or the amounts or kinds of other chemicals that the various brands of these products deliver to the user,” the FDA said in a May news release that accompanied its first study of electronic cigarettes.
Devotees share stories of their conversion from traditional cigarettes — or “analogs” — on Web forums, such as e-cigarette-forum.com, using a common slang to describe a new habit they call “vaping.”
These users bemoan what they say are kneejerk reactions of lawmakers who associate e-cigarettes with traditional cigarettes but don’t have the science to back up their claims of health risks.
The FDA study sampled 18 cartridges from two manufacturers. That’s not enough, electronic cigarette advocates say, to make blanket conclusions. Only one of those samples contained diethylene glycol. Other chemicals in the samples — including those the FDA labeled as cancer-causing — are found in common food and beverages, advocates said.
“If you were to compare it to a regular cigarette, it’s actually a million times better for you and for the people around you,” said Greg Perrelli of Landing, who founded a North Jersey e-smokers social group. “You’re exhaling water vapor.”
Like many e-cigarette users, Perrelli, 25, credits the product with helping him give up traditional cigarettes and slowly weaning him from nicotine, because the cartridges are available with different concentrations of the drug.
Perrelli and other e-smokers blamed companies such as Smoking Everywhere for attracting criticism by seemingly flaunting anti-smoking laws with products made to look like traditional cigarettes, with a tan mouthpiece that resembles a filter and a red LED that glows when a user inhales. Other companies make e-cigarettes in copper or black. Some even come in a casing that looks like a ballpoint pen.
Darnell White, who owns Smoking Everywhere franchises at the Westfield Garden State Plaza and Palisades Center malls and sells electronic cigarettes online at smokingeverywhere.biz, defended his company, saying it refuses to sell to children under 18 and claiming the product keeps people from smoking traditional cigarettes.
“Anything that gets people away from regular cigarettes is a plus in my book,” said White, himself a non-smoker. “At the end of the day, this product has helped hundreds of people to stop smoking.”
Such claims, however, are one of the aspects of e-cigarette marketing attracting regulators’ attention.
The FDA began cracking down on electronic cigarettes — many of which are imported from China — during the summer. The agency claims the product falls under a category of drug devices that includes nicotine patches and gum. Such items require the agency’s approval before they can be sold. The FDA’s potential authority over the products was strengthened this summer when a new law gave it jurisdiction over any product containing tobacco.
But smokeless cigarette distributors say the agency has overstepped its authority. Smoking Everywhere sued the FDA in April after the agency seized several of its shipments.
As for Paramus’ possible smoking ban, White says he won’t let it pass without a fight.
“The name of the company is Smoking Everywhere,” he said. “Everywhere means the malls also.”
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