E-cigarettes banned in workplaces in Boston, and city prohibits sales to minors

Boston health officials today voted to treat electronic cigarettes, known as e-cigarettes, like tobacco products, banning use of the increasingly popular products in the workplace and restricting their sale to adults only.

Battery-powered e-cigarettes, which often resemble regular cigarettes, deliver nicotine in the form of vapor and have been largely unregulated.

The Boston Public Health Commission also prohibited the sale of individual cigars, which, health officials say, have become an attractive option for teenagers looking for less expensive alternatives to cigarettes. Called cigarellos and often marketed in seductive flavors such as “pink berry,” they sell for as little as 50 cents each, compared with an average of $7.19 for a pack of cigarettes.

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“A whole generation is not going to start using tobacco and nicotine products. Cheap cigars aren’t going to be cheap anymore, and unregulated nicotine products won’t be sold to kids,” Margaret Reid, who oversees the commission’s tobacco control program, said in an interview after the vote.

The ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and the rule on cigarellos passed unanimously, and the workplace restriction passed 5-1.

Under the new regulations, retailers must apply for a permit through the commission’s tobacco control office to sell e-cigarettes, which are often marketed as a nicotine replacement therapy to help smokers quit.

A handful of convenience stores in Boston sell e-cigarettes, according to a survey conducted by the Northeastern University School of Law Public Health Legal Clinic, which also found more stores interested in selling them.

At least 14 other Massachusetts communities—including Burlington, Easthampton, and New Bedford—already regulate e-cigarettes, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s tobacco control program

The new Boston regulations require that e-cigarettes be placed behind store counters, like tobacco products, and that they not be sold to anyone under age 18. The workplace ban includes restaurant patios and decks, and loading docks.

The US Food and Drug Administration was barred by a federal judge earlier this year from regulating e-cigarettes as a medical device, unless they are marketed for therapeutic purposes.

The administration has since proposed rules that would regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco products. The agency said it conducted a “preliminary analysis” on some samples of e-cigarettes from two leading brands, and found significant quality-control issues and some evidence of toxic chemicals.

Some health advocates challenge those findings, however, saying the agency’s analysis was too limited and the conclusions too hasty. They say other studies have found that the products contain no more hazardous chemicals than those found in other nicotine replacement products, such as the patch and gum, and that many former smokers are using e-cigarettes to help them curb or kick the habit.

“The FDA has never said don’t use nicotine patches and gum,” said Bill Godshall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania, an advocacy group that supported many tobacco regulations but is at odds with regulators on e-cigarette rules. “The FDA is fear mongering.”

An FDA spokeswoman declined comment.

Because e-cigarettes are still relatively new, there is limited research on their health risks and benefits.

As for cigars, the Boston commission approved a requirement that they be sold in their original manufacturing packaging of at least four, which is intended to combat sales individual cigars to minors.

Also today, the commission voted to immediately double fines for retailers found in violation of the city’s tobacco control regulations—from $100 for the first offense and $400 for the fourth offense in 12 months to $200 for the first offense and $800 for the fourth offense in 24 months.

The e-cigarette restrictions will take effect immediately, while the new cigar packaging regulation goes into effect on January 31, 2012.