Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
More and more cities are adding e-cigarettes to smoke-free bans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products reports that vaping-product sales in the U.S. climbed to $1.7 billion in 2013. Industry experts predict that e-cigarette sales will overtake traditional tobacco sales within 10 years.
Like everything else about smoking, though, the truth about vaping appears to be awful. There's evidence that smokers who vape exhale an ultrafine-particle mist of volatile organic compounds, known carcinogens, and other chemicals that may be harmful to themselves and others around them, according to a new study from the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Scientists and activists call this vapor an "aerosol," which sounds significantly worse for mainstream and second-hand smokers than cool, misty water vapor.
While the FDA has declared that it has the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, it has yet to introduce any specific e-cigarette regulations (though they are coming soon). Which means that for now, e-cigarette manufacturers can say whatever they want about the health effects (mainstream and second-hand) associated with vaping. One 2012 study of several dozen e-cigarette retail websites found that 88 percent of them boasted that users could smoke them anywhere; 76 percent of those sites claimed that vaping doesn't produce any secondhand smoke.
Cities around the U.S. aren't waiting for the FDA to rule on e-cigarettes one way or the other before they take action. An increasing number of municipalities are adding vaping to public smoking bans.
According to Liz Williams, project manager for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, more than 172 different U.S. municipalities have added e-cigarettes to existing public smoking bans, or introduced new smoking bans that also prohibit e-smoke.
That number is growing rapidly. According to Williams, the number of local laws prohibiting electronic smoking devices in smoke-free environments grew from 100 in January to 172 by late April. (The group updates its list on a quarterly basis; and in fact, with new laws on the books as of last week in San Diego County and San Jose, it's already technically out of date.)
With a few exceptions, those bans prohibit vaping in all smoke-free venues: restaurants, bars, casinos, and non-hospitality workplaces. In New York City, you can still smoke e-cigarettes in e-cigarette retail outlets; in Dover, Massachusetts, feel free to vape away in your office.
Three states have banned vaping in 100-percent smoke-free venues: North Dakota, New Jersey, and Utah. Ten other states have introduced measures that prohibit e-cigarette use in other places: In Arkansas, for example, vaping is banned on school property. (Too late! Ten percent of U.S. high-school students have tried e-cigs.) So far, though, city vaping bans have had the wider reach. Despite lobbying efforts and push-back from industry-funded "smokers' rights" groups, e-cigarette bans took effect in April in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The populations of those three cities outnumber those of North Dakota, New Jersey, and Utah (where people don't even smoke).
Does vaping have its place? One recent study showed that smoking e-cigarettes can help traditional tobacco smokers quit. That's far from their intended purpose, of course. Certainly e-cigarettes have helped to polish tobacco's tarnished reputation. Vapefest is a thing. (SecondhandSmokeFest fell off years ago.)
For sure, if further studies show that vaping is less harmful than it increasingly appears to be, city bans on e-cigarettes will look prudish and old-fashioned. For now, though, there's reason to be glad if you live in a city where no one's allowed to blow formaldehyde in your face—no matter how fashionable that may be.
*CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that 10 percent of U.S. high school students have tried e-cigarettes. A smaller percentage are current e-cigarette smokers.