A City Council committee approved bills Thursday that would add electronic cigarettes to Philadelphia's smoke-free law and ban sales to minors, joining dozens of states and localities that are trying to slow fast-growing sales of a largely unregulated product in the absence of federal action.
The known dangers of tobacco and the unknown long-term safety of e-cigarettes have split the public health community. Most of the physicians and scientists who testified at City Hall supported a prohibition on sales to minors.
On the question of forcing e-cigarette users to step outside, most local researchers and health officials were strongly in favor. Several other scientists and physicians, some linked to libertarian think tanks, argued that restrictions would, in the words of Gilbert L. Ross, medical director of the New York-based American Council on Science and Health, "send smokers this message: 'Keep on smoking.' "
New Jersey started the trend in 2010, when the state added the devices to its comprehensive smoke-free law and banned sales to minors. At least 25 other states have since prohibited sales to minors; a similar bill is pending in Harrisburg.
But only Utah and North Dakota have picked up the statewide ban. Several big cities have passed their own laws, including New York in December and Los Angeles last week. Philadelphia could act as soon as March 27, said Councilman William K. Greenlee, sponsor of the two bills, each of which passed by voice vote.
"I think the main thing here is, we don't know what is in these devices and we don't know what can be put into them," Greenlee said before the start of the hearing of the Public Health and Human Services Committee.
While regular cigarettes burn tobacco, the new battery-powered devices use electricity to vaporize a liquid that contains nicotine. "Vapers" inhale the vapor to get a nicotine kick similar to tobacco's but without the deadly ash and tar.
The European Parliament two weeks ago opted to treat the devices like regular cigarettes, with lots of warnings and advertising bans. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide soon on regulations here.
Most scientists agree that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco. There is intense disagreement on three areas:
Can e-cigarettes help smokers quit?
Is enough known after just a few years of study to declare them safe?
Will they start nonsmokers, particularly children, down a path to tobacco addiction?
"It's OK for the e-cigarette to occupy a hopeful position in our minds. What is not OK is for that hopefulness to overtake our security in the well-being of our friends and neighbors," Frank T. Leone, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program, testified.
Gregory Conley, who lives in Medford and was representing the National Vapers Club, adamantly disagreed. He also predicted that an e-smoking ban would be impossible to enforce: Vapers could just hold their breath.
Sitting in the back of the room through two hours of testimony, he told the committee, he had used his e-cigarette 20 or 25 times, "and no one noticed."