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February 16, 2012

House Bill Looks to Snuff Out Mail-Order Sales of Electronic Cigarettes in Vermont

F-butts2-1Ex-smokers and others trying to quit or reduce their cancer-stick consumption are burning mad over a new bill in the Vermont Legislature. H.747, introduced by Rep. Bill Frank (D-Underhill), would classify electronic cigarettes as "tobacco substitutes" and ban their mail-order sale to and from Vermont.

Electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigarettes," are battery-powered devices that deliver a vaporized hit of nicotine to the user, without the smoke, odor or deadly chemicals found in burning tobacco cigarettes. Unlike the panoply of other over-the-counter tobacco-replacement products, e-cigs are often described by regular smokers as the closest thing yet to the real deal in terms of taste and sensation. 

Seven Days first wrote about the controversy surrounding e-cigarettes in a June 2, 2010, story, "Ifs, Ands and Butts: Ex-smokers rave about e-cigarettes, but the FDA and antismoking groups want them snuffed out." 

For nonsmokers, one obvious benefit of e-cigarettes is that they don't stink up your hair, clothing or house with secondhand smoke, nor do they drive your smoker pals outside to litter your front stoop with butts every 20 minutes while they satisfy their fix. But for lifelong smokers such as Josh Slocum of Winooski, the best part about e-cigarettes is that they literally saved his life.

Slocum credits e-cigarettes with helping him break his 22-year smoking habit which, as his cardiologist has told him, was largely to blame for the heart attack he suffered in December 2010 at age 36.

As Slocum writes in a February 10 letter to members of the House Committee on Human Services, "Because I switched to e-cigarettes, I've been off tobacco for more than a year. I want to stay that way. Since quitting cigarettes, my lung function has returned, my sense of taste is back, I can work out and my blood pressure is phenomenal."

First introduced to the U.S. market in 2007, e-cigarettes have come under increasing attack by national antismoking groups, including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. These and other organizations have called on the FDA to use its regulatory authority over tobacco to ban or limit their sale. A number of states and municipalities have since adopted, or considered, indoor bans on e-cigarettes in public buildings, schools and on modes of public transportation.

However, e-cigarette users — or "vapers," as they sometimes call themselves — have a seemingly unlikely but powerful ally. Michael Siegel is associate chairman of community health sciences at Boston University's School of Public Health. A physician who spent two years with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health, Siegel has done considerable research on tobacco control, secondhand smoke and the effects of tobacco marketing on children and teens. Notably, he served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in seven major lawsuits against the tobacco industry, including the landmark Engle case, which led to the $145 billion verdict against the industry. In short, he's no BFF of Big Tobacco.

So, why does Siegel support the use of e-cigarettes? As he explained to Seven Days back in 2010, tobacco cigarettes contain as many as 10,000 chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic and deadly. In contrast, e-cigs contain just five ingredients: water, propylene glycol, glycerol, nicotine and flavoring, all of which are approved for human consumption by the FDA. As millions of smokers switch to a product that is unquestionably safer than cigarettes, Siegel contends that e-cigarettes are having a major impact on public health that far surpasses the abysmal success rate (8 percent) of other tobacco-replacement products such as nicotine patches, gums and lozenges.

As Dr. Siegel writes this week on his blog, The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary:

"It is all well and good to say: 'We don't know if electronic cigarettes are safe. We should ban them until we know they are safe.' But that's an uninformed opinion. There is plenty of scientific evidence out there already about the safety of the product. It has been studied extensively in the laboratory and its chemical components have been characterized. In fact, we know far more about the chemical components of electronic cigarettes than we do about the components of Marlboros. Moreover, the question is not whether electronic cigarettes are 'safe.' The question is whether they are substantially safer than tobacco cigarettes.

"Policy needs to be based on science, not pure conjecture. Let's look at the science. Based on the studies that have been done and the information about adverse effects of the product during its three years of use in the United States, as well as the characterization of the components in the product, what are the specific chemical exposures occurring among vapers and non-vapers that these antismoking groups posit may pose a significant health hazard?

"If these groups cannot name a potential specific hazard, then it seems imprudent to ban the product, take it off the market, or even to ban its use in public, as this is going to result in forcing large numbers of vapers to go back to cigarette smoking."

File photo by Caleb Kenna

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