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E-cigarettes added to state's anti-smoking law

WBFO file photo

New Yorkers who use e-cigarettes will have to comply with the same limits on smoking cigarettes in public, now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill into law.

But anti-smoking advocates say more needs to be done to combat the rising use of the nicotine product.

Cuomo said the new law closes a “dangerous loophole” in the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which limits cigarette smoking in public places. Those same restrictions will now apply to smokeless e-cigarettes.

They no longer will be permitted in public places including bars, restaurants and work places. E-cigarettes were not widely available when the Clean Indoor Air Act was first enacted in 2003.

The American Cancer Society’s Julie Hart said while e- cigarettes don’t emit smoke like a conventional cigarette, thy still are not safe for the health of the user or those breathing the aerosol vapor emitted from the product.

She said it can contain potentially harmful substances such as nicotine, ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is also found in car exhaust.

“There’s definitely cause for concern in terms of what’s in the chemicals,” Hart said. “Even if it’s less than what is in a combustible cigarette.”

There have been no long-term studies directly linking the products to cancer. Hart said that’s because they have not been on the market long enough to be analyzed. The U.S. surgeon general has said that the use of any form of nicotine for teenagers is unsafe.

Hart calls the new law a “great first step,” but she said more needs to be done to counteract the growing number of teenagers who use the product.

According to the State Health Department, just 4.3 percent of teenagers report using regular cigarettes. But a report released in March 2017 found that the rate of high school students using e-cigarettes doubled in just two years, from 10.5 percent in 2014 to over 20 percent by 2016.

Hart said teens now think e-cigarettes are “cool.”

“It’s been a real problem in New York that so many kids are trying these products,” she said. “These are kids that would have never tried a cigarette.”

While manufacturers say they don’t market the e-cigarettes to children, they are available in flavors like strawberry, chocolate and bubble gum.

Overall, e-cigarettes are far less regulated than conventional cigarettes. That could change later this year. The Legislature passed a bill last spring to subject stores known as vape shops, which sell e-cigarettes and related products, to regulation from the state’s Department of Tax and Finance. That bill will be sent to the governor later this year for him to sign or veto.

“That’s definitely a loophole,” said Hart, who added it’s hard to track the number of vape shops in the state because of the lack of regulation.

Taxes on e-cigarettes are also relatively low, Hart said, compared to an average of $4.25 a pack for regular cigarettes. That tax is even higher in New York City. E-cigarettes are subject only to state and local sales tax and can be sold individually at a relatively low price, making them even more appealing to younger people.

The American Cancer Society would like lawmakers to authorize new taxes on e-cigarettes, and say they will ask the governor to consider it in his new budget plan, due out in January.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.