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Store owners say curb on e-cigarettes would have little impact

Posted by Your Town  September 30, 2011 04:28 PM

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(Photo by Samantha Laine)

The colorful boxes line the wall behind the cash register, their brand names boldly luring passersby: MARLBORO, CAMEL, PALL MALL.

One of the boxes is different than the rest, revealing only one cigarette in its gold and black box: LOGIC. Smoking this brand will be different than any of the other, more popular brands offered in the store.

Symphony Market II in Fenway is among a handful of Boston stores that sells electronic cigarettes, commonly referred to as e-cigarettes. Ibrahim Hasan, who owns the shop with his brother, said the store started selling e-cigarettes in 2009, but that the product has become popular only in the last year.

“A few people asked about the product, and my policy is to offer it to whoever wants to buy it,” Hasan said.

E-cigarettes are currently a topic of controversy in Boston. The city's Public Health Commission has proposed an amendment that would impose the same restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes as on tobacco products-- prohibiting sales to individuals under the age of 18 and requiring that the product be kept behind the counter. The amendment also would ban e-cigarettes in workplaces, as well as restaurants and bars.

At least two other Massachusetts communities, South Hadley and North Attleboro, already regulate the sale of e-cigarettes, according to the Boston commission.

Hasan and other local convenience store owners say the regulations will have little impact on them. People buying e-cigarettes are mostly middle-aged individuals trying to quit, not teenagers looking to start smoking, they said. They already ask for I.D.s and said that, to their knowledge, minors have never tried to purchase e-cigarettes in their stores.

Hasan and the other managers said most of their e-cigarette customers are trying to quit smoking or find alternatives to cigarettes.

“If they’re in their late-twenties or mid-thirties and buy them, it’s not like they want to start smoking,” Hasan said.

Symphony Market II is one of an estimated 13 shops in Boston that sell e-cigarettes, according to a survey by the Northeastern University School of Law Public Health Legal Clinic. Three shops are located in Dorchester, two are in Fenway, one is in North Station, one is in Charlestown, two are near Allston, two are in Roxbury and two are in Mission Hill. The majority of the shops are convenience stores.

Hasan said he views the proposed regulation as "very positive," because he does not like the idea of teenagers "smoking the e-cigarette and getting hooked on nicotine."

Managers at the Central Convenience Store in Roxbury and the 5-Corners Mini-Mart in Dorchester said they also sell e-cigarettes behind the counter and do not sell to minors. Their customers are typically in their 40s and are trying to quit smoking, they said.

In addition to regulating the sale of e-cigarettes, the proposed amendment would prohibit e-cigarette users from smoking in restaurants, bars and workplaces. That regulation is stirring more debate than the proposed restrictions on sales.

On one side of the argument, the BPHC believes that smoke from e-cigarettes may pose a safety hazard. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has conducted laboratory tests that found e-cigarettes contain toxic chemicals and carcinogens; and the health effects of involuntary exposure to e-cigarette vapors containing these chemicals and carcinogens is unknown,” BPHC says in the proposed amendment.

But Dr. Michael Siegel-- a tobacco control specialist at the Boston University School of Public Health and an advocate of banning smoking in restaurants and bars—said the move to ban e-cigarette use in public places is premature.

“The press release that came from the (FDA) report is very misleading. They say they found carcinogens in e-cigarettes, but what they don’t say is that there were only trace levels," Siegel said. "There are trace levels found in nicotine gum and patches. It’s interesting that they’re not saying, ‘Look out, nicotine patches have carcinogens!’ or ‘Look out for that nicotine gum!’ The levels are basically the same."

The level of carcinogens in e-cigarettes is 1,400 times lower than the level of carcinogens in Marlboros. Carcinogens in secondhand smoke from cigarettes have been found to be hazardous to people. Little research has been done on the presence of carcinogens in secondhand vapor from e-cigarettes.

“I would call this a case of propaganda,” Siegel said. “There is no evidence at this point that there are any chemicals in (e-cigarette vapor) that cause harm to bystanders." He said that banning e-cigarette use based on such little research could have a negative impact by discouraging smokers from switching to e-cigarettes.

A public hearing on the proposal is set for Tuesday, Oct. 4, with a final vote scheduled for November.

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Samantha Laine, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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