Amid new restrictions, New York City remains divided on e-cigarettes
On December 30, 2013, less than 48 hours away from the end of his 12 year reign over the city of New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sat in City Hall rounding off a final flurry of legislation. Among the 22 bills he signed into law that day was a city-wide ban on the growing and then-unchecked proliferation of e-cigarette use in otherwise smoke-free areas, stores, restaurants, and parks included.
This move, like many of his, has not gone unchallenged.
Though the last in his legacy of high-profile prohibitions (a laundry list of vice including everything from guns and greenhouse emissions to sodium, trans-fats, and oversized sodas) the ban, which finally settled into law this past Spring, imposes on e-cigarette users the same strictures suffered by traditional smokers. Where once it was not uncommon to witness e-smokers "lighting up" in public spaces – and even, for a while, on MTA trains – the practice is now strictly verboten, and barbed with hefty fines for establishments which continue to enshrine the practice.
Invented (and internationally patented) by Chinese companies in the early aughts, e-cigarettes have gained considerable traction in the west in recent years. The industry has exploded since 2009, with sales of the devices jumping from under 40 million dollars annually to a billion dollars in 2013. That figure is projected to climb close to 2 billion over the next year, as current estimates place the total number of e-cigarette users in the U.S. at 2.5 million (compared to the 45 million traditional smokers in the country).
Part of the appeal lies in the technology's purported safety, as well as its potential viability as a cessation tool smokers of regular tobacco. E-cigarettes function by vaporizing a store of refillable "e-liquid" contained within the battery-powered device. The liquid, often flavored with anything from menthol to "banana split," comprises a bevy of chemicals mixed with nicotine – the addictive ingredient in cigarettes which makes the habit such a miserable one to kick. Like nicotine patches, e-cigarettes deliver a dose of the drug while sparing one's lungs the harmful gust of tobacco smoke. There are even some varieties of e-liquids manufactured with no nicotine at all.
To smoke an e-cigarette, then, is not really to smoke at all. A more accurate term, and one happily adopted by the pro-e-cigarette community, is to "vape." Vapor, these groups claim, is harmless, and carries none of the risks that traditional cigarettes pose to lungs via direct or "secondhand" inhalation. According to a 2014 statistic, 31% of adult smokers who've tried vaping their daily fix have been able to quit (at least by their own account) their dependency on the analog counterpart.
But data are still new, and all is up for vigorous debate. Bloomberg, for his part, isn't buying any of it. "It works about as well as patches," he recently informed a reporter, "which is to say it really doesn't work." Even some administrators of e-cigarette surveys caution against over-interpreting their results, describing their studies as "exploratory" and drawn from "sample[s] not representative of all vapers." Still further findings indicate that e-cigarette vapor releases heavy metals and known carcinogens into the air, though the wild and wholly unregulated variability of e-liquid composition renders any study far from definitive.
Putting aside the nascent science, many anti-smoking activists argue that e-cigarettes are pernicious in other, less obvious ways. Just as the Food and Drug Administration has yet to seize any regulatory control over the chemical makeup of e-cigarettes, so too have federal agencies failed to govern how and to whom the products can be marketed. Despite efforts to the contrary, the U.S. Government is unable to treat (and thus devise restrictions for) e-cigarettes as "tobacco products," seeing as they contain no tobacco whatsoever.
Still, some fear that the veneer of "coolness" and "safety" coalescing around the devices threatens to undo decades of advocacy against smoking in America. A full 10% of U.S. high school students have tried an e-cigarette, and many worry that this may paint over the work of campaigns to convince kids that smoking is harmful. A culture of positivity around "smoking," however innocent the gateway device, could draw youngsters back to the arms of Big Tobacco in the end. Armed with enticing flavors like "apple pie," "graham cracker," and "blueberry waffle," e-cigarette manufacturers, some have argued, are barely bothering to disguise how eager they are to make vapers out of the next generation of Americans.
In spite of traditional anti-smoking activists and nouveau nannies like Bloomberg, the pro-vapor community isn't lying down. Back in April, a sizable number of e-cigarette proponents gathered for a "vape-in" at a popular bar on 27th street. Supported and attended by members of Reason and Vice Magazine (the former a well-known libertarian publication), the vape-in was designed to show solidarity for a now-ongoing lawsuit against the Bloomberg ban brought by the New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment.
In a parallel development, a culture of trendy artisanship has begun to grow rapidly around e-cigarettes, and particularly the sale of custom, high-quality e-liquids. According to The New York Times earlier this year, six e-cigarette shops have opened in NYC in as many months, diversely spread across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Like micro-breweries and other popular craft products like coffee and "cronuts," these dens of sweet-smelling vapor are just the latest small business trend to take a drag from the atmosphere of cool that seems to orbit the city in perpetuity.
Vapor venues like the recently opened Henley Vaporium, located at Spring and Kenmare in SoHo, boast well-dressed, knowledgeable "vapologists" happy to introduce devotees and tourists alike to the "hundreds of e-liquid flavors" the shop has for sale (and for sample) on their "evolving list" of products, including electronic cigarettes ranging from barely over $10 to kits that can run up to $250. With the ban on restaurant, bar, and other public usage now in full force, these shops are one of the few welcoming locations left in the city for vapers to gather in an indoor social setting. At a shop boasting free WiFi, ample seating, and a friendly (if hazy) atmosphere, one could easily do worse looking for a leisurely city hangout.
While the lawsuit against the New York City ban has yet to be resolved, the burgeoning e-cigarette industry has shown it won't sit still for the passage of similar measures. While cities large and small are moving to (or had already) curb vaping in public areas, industry lobbyists have so far been highly successful in preventing state legislatures for enacting to many restrictions on the sale and composition of the devices and liquids.
Time will surely tell where the U.S. is headed on this issue; the FDA's continued efforts to reign e-cigarettes in under traditional tobacco laws (much like Bloomberg has done in New York) will be of particular relevance in the coming years. For the city's part, at least, the future remains uncertain. While e-cig sales continue to explode, new mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed a strong preference for supporting (and perhaps even strengthening) the proposals set in motion by his predecessor. If history teaches anything, however, it's that whatever the outcome, e-cigarettes are likely set to endure a boom and bust of craze and condemnation before anyone, layman to legislator, knows quite what they think of them.
And so reports the Times, in their interview with a pack-a-day smoker who recently made the switch: While "happy to have quit smoking," the man is apparently "not thrilled" about everything to do with his new habit. Plainly, but perhaps tellingly: it just "looks really silly.”