The 2006 state law banned smoking in bars and restaurants on the basis that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. But King County’s rationale for adding e-cigarettes - also known as battery-powered nicotine-delivery devices - to the list of forbidden acts is a little different.
The fake cigs, from which users inhale vaporized nicotine, don’t emit smoke. Rather, they produce a less-smelly, combustion-free mist.
But public health officials say they’re so similar to the real thing that they make tobacco enforcement difficult and often prompt smokers to think it’s OK to light up in public. And that leads to second-hand smoke, health officials reason.
“The idea is that even though they’re not exactly identical to cigarettes, people see folks using e-cigarettes, and they think somebody else is smoking,” said Bud Nicola, a King County Board of Health member and affiliate professor with the University of Washington School of Public Health.
“It makes it very difficult for inspectors.”
The Board of Health is scheduled to discuss and vote on the proposed regulation (PDF) Thursday. The proposal also includes restricting the sales of e-cigarettes and similar devices to people 18 and over, and a ban on free giveaways and heavily discounted sales of the products.
Often marketed as “healthier smoking” or a way to quit smoking, e-cigarettes have become a controversial issue in public health circles. Earlier this month, the federal Food and Drug Administration lost its court fight to ban or regulate e-cigarettes as unapproved drug delivery devices.
According to a Public Health Seattle-King County report, the FDA had found known toxins in a sampling of e-cigarettes, including carcinogenic nitrosamines and diethylene glycol, an anti-freeze ingredient. The FDA also found the devices delivered a strikingly wide range of nicotine. The amount of the toxins was not included in the local health report.
Although some e-cigarette makers say their products don’t contain nicotine, the FDA says there is no way of knowing that for sure.
Despite that, the products are widely available in convenience stores and malls and increasingly popular, making health experts worry that they can be a youth “gateway” for smoking. A recent operation by the Spokane public health district found that most retailers sold e-cigarettes to teens who tried to buy them.
“These are something that can potentially get kids hooked on nicotine,” Nicola said. “E-cigarettes have a high appeal to youth. They come in candy flavors.”
While the feds study their e-cigarette options, Nicola said its important for local health officials to protect the public from potential harm. King County’s proposal would also restrict sales and giveaways of other “unapproved nicotine delivery devices,” such as nicotine lollipops, wafers and water.
None of those products have undergone FDA review. Nicotine gum and patches would not be a part of the restrictions, because they are regulated by the FDA as smoking-cessation products.
If King County’s proposal is passed, it’s believed it would be the strictest in the country. A handful of states and other jurisdictions have some e-cigarette rules, but none as comprehensive as the one proposed here.
By Vanessa Ho: 206-448-8003, [email protected].