"I got interested in this because I saw all these ads for e-cigarettes, so I did some research," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat. "I found what is in the e-cigarettes is a mystery."
She wants to ban e-cigarettes in New York until they are more thoroughly investigated and regulated. The bill could be voted out of the Assembly Health Committee as early as Tuesday, said Rosenthal, a 20-year smoker who quit more than a dozen years ago.
Her bill was approved in the Assembly last year but stalled in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. Senate Health Committee Chairman Kemp Hannon, a Republican, said the bill likely will be considered by his committee and a hearing may be held, but it's too early to predict what will happen with the proposal.
E-cigarettes have prompted debate nationwide since they became widely available in the United States in 2006. But as either a tobacco cigarette substitute or a much more extensively tested and restricted drug-delivery device, the future of e-cigarettes will likely be decided by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA lost a court case last year after trying to treat e-cigarettes as drug-delivery devices, rather than tobacco products, because e-cigarettes heat nicotine extracted from tobacco.
Powerful lobbies are involved. If treated as a tobacco product, e-cigarettes would avoid the research and trials required of competitors in the pharmaceutical industry, including anti-smoking patches and inhalers. As a medical device, e-cigarettes could draw opposition from that powerful lobby as a fresh and less expensive competitor.
Advocates of e-cigarettes are now watching New York "very closely. They kind of snuck up on us," said Elaine Keller of Springfield, Va., vice president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association.
"I would still be smoking if not for this product," she said. Keller said she has been tobacco free since March 2009 after 45 years of smoking. She said her group amounts to a grass-roots effort of those who feel the government has blocked this "miracle" product.
"There is no industry support on this thing at all," she said of the organization. "We want to keep it this way so no one can say we are a shill for the tobacco, drug or e-cigarette industry." She also tries to recast the safety question.
"I can't point to anything to say it's 100 percent safe," Keller said. "The thing is, it only needs to be safer. The only standard is that it's safer than smoking."