NEW YORK (AP) -- With smokers exiled 12 years ago to New York City's sidewalks, some smokers took up e-cigarettes as a way to come in from the cold. They could puff away once again in restaurants, offices or even libraries without running afoul of the city's ban on smoking in indoor public places.
Now they're down to their last few puffs with the City Council's 43-8 vote Thursday to expand the smoking ban to include e-cigarettes. Once signed by the mayor, the city's ban would take effect in four months.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said ahead of the vote that the evidence on whether nicotine inhalers are truly safe is insufficient. She said allowing the devices into places where cigarettes are now banned also could "renormalize" smoking and undermine the public perception that the habit is now acceptable only in the privacy of one's own home.
"We don't want a step backward with that," she said.
The vote came amid sharp disagreement within public health circles over how to treat e-cigarettes. The tobacco-free smokes heat up a chemical solution and emit vapors while giving smokers their nicotine fix.
Manufacturers say the mist is harmless, and most scientists agree that regular smokers who switch to e-cigarettes are lowering their health risk substantially.
The devices, though, aren't heavily regulated. And experts say consumers can't yet be sure whether they are safe either for users or people exposed to second-hand vapor puffs.
Like regular cigarettes, the nicotine in e-cigarettes is also highly addictive. People who use them may be unable to quit, even if they want to. That has raised concerns that a new generation of young people could gravitate toward e-cigarettes and wind up hooked for life or even switch to tobacco cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration has said it intends to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, but has yet to issue any rules, leaving manufacturers free to advertise while regular cigarette ads are now banned.
Several states, including New Jersey, Arkansas, Utah and North Dakota, have already expanded their indoor smoking bans to include e-cigarettes. Other bans have been proposed in several big cities. About half of the states restrict sales to minors.
At a City Council hearing earlier this month, city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley urged the council to approve a ban, saying the city couldn't risk rolling back the progress it has made driving down smoking rates.
The American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids agreed. Other public health advocates did not. They said that in a nation where roughly 1 in 5 adults are hooked on indisputably deadly cigarettes, safer alternatives should be embraced, not discouraged, even if science hasn't rendered a final verdict.
E-cigarette manufacturers say they don't believe their products will be used as a "gateway drug" to cigarettes, and have criticized New York's proposed ban as a rush to judgment.
"Companies like us want to be responsible, but when you have municipalities prematurely judge what should be and what shouldn't be, based not on the science, I think it does the public a disservice," said Miguel Martin, president of e-cigarette brand Logic.
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