PORTLAND, Maine — Are electronic cigarettes a public health menace, or a valuable tool to help smokers quit the habit?
The opposing viewpoints can be expressed Monday, April 27, when the City Council considers an order to add “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” commonly known as e-cigs and “vapes,” to the list of tobacco products banned in public areas.
“Many other cities have done this,” Councilor Ed Suslovic said April 10. “They realized there was a loophole. … When they passed these ordinances, these devices did not exist.”
Old Port Vape shop co-owner John Kreis has already spoken out against a proposed state bill that would ban e-cig use in places where tobacco use is already prohibited. He is now ready to speak up to the City Council, too.
“My opinion is this should not be regulated as a tobacco product until they can demonstrate the effects are as dangerous as tobacco,” Kreis said April 15.
The City Charter amendment regulating tobacco use passed a first council reading on April 6. It was forwarded to the council March 10 with a unanimous endorsement from the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which Suslovic chairs.
Similar ordinances or amendments have been passed in more than 270 communities, Suslovic noted.
A staff analysis prepared by Bethany Sanborn, manager of the city Department of Health and Human Services Chronic Disease Prevention Program, cited increased use of the devices by youth, potential confusion about allowable tobacco use, and the undetermined health effects of e-cigs as reasons to ban their use in city parks, buildings and plazas.
State law prohibits sale of electronic cigarettes to anyone under 18, but unlike tobacco products, the devices are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The reusable, pen-sized devices use battery-charged atomizers to heat liquids containing various amounts of nicotine, or no nicotine at all. The liquids can be flavored, and the devices can cost as little as $20 and as much as $200, or more. They are becoming more popular with smokers looking to cut back on their habits.
Kreis and business partner Alex Russak have posted etiquette guidelines outside the shop at 53 Market St. Kreis said he also asks younger customers why they would want to start the habit.
“We look them in the eyes and say ‘why do you want to do this?’” he said.
But for customers who may have been smoking for years, Kreis sees tangible benefits in switching to vapes.
“Your lungs clear up, you don’t cough and you don’t smell,” he said.
Old Port Vape customer Jeremiah Church said the vaporizer ended his smoking habit after pills, patches and cold-turkey attempts could not.
“The day I bought a kit, I quit smoking,” Church said April 15.
Joel Nascimento, manager of the Lucky Juju Headshop at 28 Market St., said he also gets customers who rely on devices to stop smoking tobacco. Like Kreis, he objects to adding them to the city’s prohibited products.
“For a safer alternative, you would think it is a positive. To turn it into a negative because it is viewed a certain way is ignorant,” Nascimento said.
Suslovic, however, said not enough is known about the possible effects of e-cigs, and whether the devices emit second-hand smoke that endangers others.
“I’m not sure we know the vapor is completely safe,” the councilor said, adding the presence of nicotine alone creates a need to include the devices in the city ordinance.
Prohibiting public use would also ban e-cigs from use at outdoor cafes, even though the City Council has allowed increased licensing of outdoor alcohol sales at restaurants.
Suslovic said he is less troubled by children seeing adults having a drink than by them breathing vapors.
“It is possible, based on the studies I have seen, that alcohol can be consumed in moderation,” he said. “No studies show there is responsible use of tobacco or nicotine.”
“There are a lot worse things you can be doing than a vaporizer,” he said.
At the state level, Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, has introduced a bill, LD 1108, to ban vaping in all the same places from which cigarettes are barred.