The news: Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pushed a measure through the city council to increase the scope of the city's public smoking ban to include e-cigarettes, devices which simulate tobacco smoking by emitting a nicotine-filled vapor.
Just weeks ago, the city council also raised the legal age to buy tobacco in NYC from 18 to 21, the first major U.S. metro area to do so.
New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said earlier this month that "more research is needed on electronic cigarettes," but that "waiting to act could jeopardize the progress we have made over the last few years."
The background: New York City's smoking ban has been in place since 2003, and despite a lot of complaining, it's actually pretty mild; smoking in bars, restaurants, parks, beaches, and plazas is were banned, but residents remained free to smoke in public, on the street, and pretty much everywhere else, making the legislation less of a ban than rules on the use of public space.
Critics, backed by Big Tobacco, alleged that the ban would destroy New York's bar and restaurant industry and hurt tourism. But those effects never materialized (the hospitality industry has grown 50% over the past decade, according to Bloomberg) and the mayor claims the bill has likely saved 10,000 lives. Even most bar owners came around as the controversy settled, with close to 100% compliance. What the hospitality industry initially fought tooth-and-nail has now become the accepted way of doing business.
Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association president Brad Dixon says that "When it happened, it was Earth-shattering ... they (state lawmakers) passed it in the middle of the night and we didn't see it coming. In the end, when the dust settled, it's been a good thing, obviously. People smoke less when they have to get up and go outside."
"Once everybody got used to it, you know, they didn't miss their clothes smelling so much when they got home. But that transition was tough."
But does the new legislation go too far? Yeah, probably. The City Council explicitly passed this for reasons that have nothing to do with health:
"Because many of the E-cigarettes are designed to look like cigarettes and be used just like them, they can lead to confusion or confrontation," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Similarly, Councilman James Gennaro worried that e-cigarettes' resemblance to the real thing would undermine anti-smoking efforts and public health initiatives designed to keep kids from smoking.
Here's the problem: According to a study from Drexel University, e-cigarettes pose just 1% the risk of real cigarettes. Even if the benefits are overstated, they don't smell bad, they're pretty easy to distinguish from real cigarettes, and instituting barriers to use might undermine the great health benefits of switching from real tobacco to electronic vaporizers.
While this isn't as big a switch as the original smoking ban, it's unclear this particular measure will do much to actually promote public health.