Chicago is set to become the first major American city to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places.
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Chicago's City Council will be asked today to consider a proposal to prohibit the use of battery-operated smoking devices anywhere that the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products are already forbidden, according to Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair.
The ban is championed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as several other local elected officials and numerous public health groups. The proposal will be studied by a Council subcommittee and then put up for a vote in December.
The proposed ban would amend an existing ordinance regulating tobacco use in public spaces, Choucair said. If passed, it would go into effect some time in January 2014. A prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools would also go into effect within 6 months of passage.
Choucair said the ban aims to protect children from any tobacco use, including electronic cigarettes, which contain nicotine and other chemicals. E-cigarettes come in flavors such as cotton candy, gummy bear and dozens of other flavors and colors designed to appeal to children, he said.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found nearly 1.8 million young people had tried e-cigarettes and that the number of e-smokers among U.S. middle and high school students doubled between 2011 and 2012. Choucair said this increase is alarming considering the products have only been available for a short time.
"Currently it's legal for a 14-year-old kid to walk into any store and buy these things, no questions asked," he said. "We think that's wrong and we want to change it."
The Chicago ban would make it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to minors within city limits. Retailers would also be required to apply for a sales license to sell e-smoke products and they could only be sold from behind the counter, the same as other tobacco products, Choucair said.
Erika Sward, vice president of the American Lung Association, said she applauds the proposed ban.
"The Lung Association wants to make sure public health is protected and we believe this is an important step to continuing that," Sward said.
Beyond her concern that e-cigarettes could serve as a gateway to other tobacco use, Sward said that some of the initial studies looking at the dangers of second-hand e-vapors are troubling.
"We certainly believe we have come a long way in protecting people from the dangers of cigarette smoke in public places," she said. "We don't want to have people now exposed to e-cigarette second-hand emissions until we know more about them."
Surprisingly, Thomas Kiklas, co-owner of e-cigarette maker inLife and co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, said the ban is logical and he supports it.
"The FDA says they are to be regulated as tobacco products and as such, any tobacco regulations should also apply to e-cigarettes at this point in time," Kiklas said, referring to a 2011 federal court decision that gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate e-smokes under existing tobacco laws rather than as a medication or medical device.
The agency has hinted it could begin regulating e-smokes as soon as this year. The only action the FDA has taken to date regarding e-cigarettes is issuing a letter in 2010 to distributors warning them to cease making various unsubstantiated marketing claims. Kiklas said the majority of companies follow the marketing guidelines.
Sward said she hoped the Chicago ban on e-smoking in public places would spur other cities to consider similar legislation.
Boston already has a ban on e-smoking in the workplace, she said. Amtrak bans the use of the devices on trains, and the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits them on flights.
E-cigarette devices work much like a miniature version of the smoke machines that operate behind rock bands. When you "vape" -- that's the term for puffing on an e-cig -- a heating element boils the e-liquid until it produces a vapor. There is no conclusive evidence either way regarding the safety of the habit.
The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimates about 4 million Americans now use battery-powered cigarettes. They project sales of the devices to cross the 1 billion mark by the end of this year.
Choucair said he expects the proposed ban to pass. It is part of a larger initiative to reduce tobacco use in the city that includes increasing the cigarette sales tax and a citywide anti-smoking ad campaign.