Testimony on Proposal to Expand Smoke-Free Air Act to Include E-Cigarettes

Sheelah Feinberg testifying at City Council public hearing

Sheelah Feinberg testifying at a public hearing conducted by the Health Committee of the New York City Council.

Good morning and thank you Council Member Arroyo and members of the Health Committee for the opportunity to speak today.

My name is Sheelah Feinberg, and I am the Executive Director of the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, a program of Public Health Solutions. The Coalition is a public health advocacy group that has worked with over one hundred health and youth focused community groups across the five boroughs to raise awareness around tobacco control and prevention. We support neighborhood efforts for long-term change and believe that all New Yorkers have the right to breathe clean, smoke-free air where they live, work, and play.

The Coalition and its partners are grateful to have a City Council and Mayor who have demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to improving public health.  Our combined efforts have yielded historic success. Thanks to a comprehensive approach that includes bold policies, higher cigarette taxes, hard-hitting media campaigns, and cessation services to help smokers quit, the percentage of adults smoking in New York City is now 15.5%[1] and the percentage of public high school students who smoke has fallen to 8.5%.[2] This means thousands of lives saved, increased life expectancy, and improved health for all New Yorkers.

Earlier this year, the Coalition celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the Smoke-Free Air Act. New York City was considered a public health pioneer when we made our bars and restaurants smoke-free. What was at the time considered a contentious public health initiative is now widely embraced not only in New York City but also in other cities, states, and even other countries. The Smoke-Free Air Act has since been expanded to include hospital entryways as well as public parks, beaches, and pedestrian plazas.

However, with the emergence of e-cigarettes, our successes may be compromised. In fact, youth use of e-cigarettes doubled last year,[3] and we are concerned that this unregulated product will serve as a nicotine starter kit for a new generation of smokers.

In the absence of federal guidelines, state and local governments must decide how to approach the sale and use of e-cigarettes. Many states, including New York, have set minimum purchase ages for e-cigarettes to try to prevent teenagers from becoming addicted to nicotine. As we know, New York City is now the first major city in the US to increase the minimum purchase age for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to twenty-one.

Adding e-cigarettes to the Smoke-Free Air Act is both welcome and necessary. The driving force for the original legislation was strong science and research showing that secondhand smoke from combustible cigarettes is harmful. Research suggests that the vapor emitted from e-cigarettes is not free of carcinogens.[4],[5] Beyond the uncertainty about the safety of exposure to the vapor, restaurant patrons and workers should not have to worry about determining whether a person is smoking a real cigarette or “vaping” an e-cigarette. E-cigarettes are designed to mimic the look of real cigarettes.  Allowing e-cigarettes in areas where smoking is prohibited would not only complicate enforcement of the Smoke-Free Air Act, but it would also mean that “smoking” would be seen in places where is hasn’t been allowed for years.

While some have claimed that e-cigarettes are safe and a cessation aide, the evidence to back both of these claims simply does not exist at this time. The Food and Drug Administration has not declared e-cigarettes to be an effective tool for quitting smoking; and there is no research showing that e-cigarettes have helped smokers quit long-term or break nicotine addiction altogether. Also, many e-cigarette users smoke regular cigarettes too.

Why act now? As stated previously, the use of e-cigarettes is on the rise. With marketing and flavoring of e-cigarettes falling outside the current restrictions on the tobacco industry, e-cigarette manufacturers are running numerous ads, including during this year’s Super Bowl, and targeting youth with flavors such as gummy bear, bubble gum, and caramel apple. While adding e-cigarettes to the Smoke-Free Air Act will not address all of these concerns, we believe it will prevent the re-normalization of smoking in places like restaurants and playgrounds.

New York City is not alone in the pursuit of limiting use of e-cigarettes to where smoking is permitted: New Jersey, Utah, South Dakota, and a number of localities have added e-cigarettes to their smoke-free laws. Forty-one state Attorneys General have urged the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes the same way as other tobacco products.[6] In addition, Chicago officials recently announced their intention to expand their city’s definition of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes. Under the proposal being discussed today, if a New York City adult wants to use an e-cigarette, he or she still can wherever smoking is permitted.

In closing, despite great progress, tobacco use still causes hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths in the United States annually, including thousands of lives lost here in New York. For over twenty years, the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City has been a proud supporter of tobacco control and prevention efforts. While we believe that much more should be done to prevent the aggressive promotion of nicotine addiction regardless of the delivery mechanism, adding e-cigarettes to the New York City Smoke-Free Air Act is an important step for protecting public health and reducing the ongoing negative effects of smoking.

Thank you.

[1] Community Health Survey, 2012. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

[2] Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2011. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

[3] CDC Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, 11/15/2013: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6245a2.htm?s_cid=mm6245a2_w

[6] National Association of Attorneys General Letter to FDA. 10/23/2013 http://www.naag.org/assets/files/pdf/signons/E%20Cigarette%20Final%20Letter%20w%20Florida.pdf