By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A Philadelphia City Council committee today took the first step toward banning electronic cigarettes in public places in the city, despite the protestations of those who say they help you quit smoking.
At a hearing today, City Council’s public health committee got an earful from both sides on the e-cigarette debate.
The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Donald Schwarz (top photo), said he supports the Council measure which would prohibit e-cigarettes in public spaces.
He said more studies are needed about the health effects of the product, so a public ban now is appropriate.
“In fact, now is the best time to take action, before e-cigarette exposure becomes more extensive,” Schwarz told the committee. “The point is not prohibition, it is regulation: setting some clear rules about where e-cigarettes can and can’t be used.”
Schwarz said manufacturers have so far failed to prove that e-cigarettes help people quit regular cigarettes.
“This industry wants to generate huge sales by suggesting their products can help people quit, but it doesn’t want to do the studies to prove that the product are actually effective,” he noted.
E-cigarettes are battery powered devices that look like regular cigarettes and simulate smoking.
Before the committee was Councilman Bill Greenlee’s measure that would add e-cigarettes to the city’s existing ban on smoking in public spaces.
Also in support was Dr. Frank Leone, head of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at the Penn Lung Center.
“I have no doubt that there are some people who will benefit from e-cigarette use,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am equally certain that there are people for whom the visible presence of e-cigarettes in their lives is an impediment to their healthy goals.”
Leone agreed with the city health commissioner that a prohibition is appropriate because more study is needed.
“The impact of long-term exposure to e-cigarette aerosols in an entire population remains unknown, and as such, in my view, remains a legitimate cause for concern,” Leone said.
But many speakers spoke in opposition. Among them was Dr. Joel Nitzkin (below), speaking for what he described as a libertarian think tank called the R Street Institute.
“E-cigarette vapor contains no products of combustion and only the tiniest traces of other toxic substances,” he said. “E-cigarettes pose a risk well below two percent of the risk posed by regular cigarettes, and for all practical purposes, no risk to bystanders.”
Bill Godshall, head of Smoke Free Pennsylvania, also insisted that e-cigarettes are relatively harmless.
“E-cigarettes pose no risk to nonusers,” he told the committee. “Hundreds of common workplace and household products and activities emit far greater levels of indoor air pollution than e-cigarettes, including furniture, carpet, paint, printers, dry cleaning clothes, perfume, nail polish, and even a cup of coffee. But we don’t ban any of those things. Public health benefits every time a smoker uses an e-cig instead of smoking.”
He also demonstrated how a e-cigarette user can puff surreptitiously without creating a telltale cloud of smoke.
Despite those concerns, the bill restricting the use of e-cigarettes in public spaces was approved unanimously and now goes to the full Council for a vote.
Also approved was a measure that prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The state regulates the sale of tobacco products, but Councilman Greenlee insists that both measures are valid as city laws since e-cigarettes contain no tobacco.