ALBANY – People craving a nicotine fix via vaping soon may be scrambling to find places to light up in New York.
Some key lawmakers and health care organizations, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute, are launching an all-out push to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in all public places where tobacco cigarettes also are prohibited.
That means bars and restaurants, education settings, hospitals, buses, indoor arenas, bingo halls, zoos and job sites.
Health groups are on the offensive in a policy fight attracting interest from electronic cigarette makers in China, England and the United States. They fear limiting places where people "vape" will force down sales in a major state.
The effort comes shortly after President Trump fired the nation’s anti-vaping U.S. surgeon general and delayed new federal rules to regulate the electronic cigarette trade.
In Albany, neither side in the debate is declaring victory.
“The so-called public health groups are lobbying up a storm,’’ said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, which represents retailers who sell vapor products, including e-cigarettes.
The Assembly last week passed a measure affecting use of e-cigarettes. The legislation, now pending in the Senate, bans use in the same way as tobacco cigarettes were banned under the landmark 2003 Clean Indoor Air Act.
“We want to establish a principle that anybody can use an electronic cigarette, but in those situations where it’s indoors and other people may be disturbed, you may not,’’ said Senate sponsor, Kemp Hannon, a Long Island Republican who is the longtime influential chairman of the Health Committee.
“The need is somebody who’s trying to have a meal should not be subjected to unwanted vapor,’’ Hannon said. “There are some people who allege it has unwanted chemicals in it, but, basically, it’s also annoying.’’
No decision on its passage has been made yet.
In March, the Senate and Assembly went along with some of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposals to regulate sales of the vapor products. The Senate, however, rejected a Cuomo and Assembly effort to significantly lift the taxes imposed on e-cigarettes.
But when the budget was adopted in April, all new restrictions on e-cigarettes mysteriously were dropped.
Health advocates then stepped up their effort to revive the restrictions in hopes of getting a new deal before lawmakers end their session next month. They have dropped a push to increase taxes on e-cigarettes and now are focused on making the vapor products use comply with the clean indoor air laws applicable to tobacco cigarettes.
If New York State imposes new restrictions on e-cigarettes, it would not be a trailblazing effort. Beyond increasing numbers of bans, eight counties – including Erie – and New York City already prohibit e-cigarette use in indoor public spaces. Moreover, many private entities, from restaurants to sports facilities, also have banned use of the vapor products.
Industry pushes back
Electronic cigarette proponents dismiss contentions that e-cigarettes can be a gateway to tobacco cigarettes, which both sides agree is more dangerous.
Michael Frennier, president of the New York State Vapor Association, represents some of the 610 vape shops in New York. He cites research showing e-cigarettes can help push many smokers, who are addicted to nicotine, away from conventional cigarettes.
Frennier and others believe the pharmaceutical industry is trying to drive the debate against e-cigarettes.
“Every time someone quits smoking, it’s a failed prescription that they won’t write,’’ said Frennier, who is also general manager of a vapor retail company based near Syracuse.
If the pharmaceutical industry is involved, there are no lobbying records showing that in the bill the Assembly passed.
The retail vapor stores have been coordinating lobbying efforts with big tobacco companies that are increasing their share of the e-cigarettes sales in North America.
Nielsens, which tracks certain tobacco-related sales, reported VUSE, made by R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., a subsidiary of Reynolds America, is the top e-cigarette sold in the United States. Altria, the ex-Philip Morris company, is among the top sellers, too, with its MarkTen brand. Both companies have registered lobbyists in Albany working to halt the bill’s final passage in the Senate.
“Because of their potentially lower health risks when compared to cigarettes, we believe vapor products should be taxed and regulated differently than cigarettes. High taxes and severe restrictions on how vapor products are marketed and where they can be used may deter smokers from switching from cigarettes to vapor products,’’ said Brittany Adams, a spokeswoman for RAI Services Co., a subsidiary of Reynolds American Inc. and an affiliate of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
E-cigarette sales flourish
Vivek Murthy, an Obama administration holdover removed last month as U.S. surgeon general by President Trump, last year reported that e-cigarette use has grown 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015, passing all conventional forms of tobacco use.
“E-cigarette use among U.S. youth and young adults is now a major public health concern,’’ the surgeon general said in a 275-page report.
The American Lung Association embraces ways to help smokers quit conventional cigarettes, but dismisses vapor companies cessation claims.
“There is not one public health organization that will say this is a proven cessation device. If you want to use it, use it, but there should be no right to use it in a public space,’’ said Kristina Wieneke, New York public policy director at the Lung Association.
Health care groups are committed to getting an omnibus measure through the Senate.
“If they’re designing it as a tobacco product, it should be treated like any other tobacco product,’’ Wieneke said of e-cigarettes.
But efforts to restrict where e-cigarettes may be used will end up reducing consumption of those products and increase people who smoke tobacco, said Ray Story, chief executive officer of the Georgia-based Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.
It takes longer for e-cigarette users to get satisfying levels of nicotine into their body than conventional cigarettes, industry advocates say. Someone on a brief work break may, if forced to head outdoors instead of using an e-cigarette at their desk, might be pushed back to conventional cigarettes if New York adds the new restrictions.
“It’s not only insane but it’s counterproductive and irresponsible … The anti-smoking whack jobs out there keep trying to throw us under the bus,’’ Story said.