Not content with prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 21, the City Council and the Bloomberg administration are working to add e-cigs to the city's 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act, thereby banning the use of the vapor-emitting devices in restaurants, offices, parks, beaches and other public spaces. In an announcement dumped on Thanksgiving-eve, the City Council argued thus:

Smoking rates are lower than ever and New Yorkers are healthier and live longer as a direct result of these laws. One of our greatest achievements in combating the devastating effects of smoking was passing the Smoke-Free Air Act which bans smoking in public places, restaurants and bars and in private office buildings where people work. The Smoke-Free Air Act has saved lives and has even been a boon to business.

E-cigarettes which contain nicotine, the addictive ingredient in tobacco, as well as other unknown substances now threaten the progress we've made and we must take decisive and immediate action. Because e-cigarettes are designed to look like cigarettes, they pose a problem to business owners and threaten effective enforcement of the Smoke-Free Air Act.

Furthermore, we all know that smoking is a particularly difficult habit to kick. Allowing smokers an easy way to maintain their nicotine intake indoors can make quitting even harder. Allowing the use of e-cigarettes in places where smoking is prohibited sends the wrong message to children - that smoking is safe. The truth is, nicotine is a dangerous, addictive drug that could be a gateway to smoking and a lifetime of chronic health problems and even death. In fact, E-cigarette use nearly doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012.

Finally, exposure to the chemicals emitted by E-cigarettes, which are unregulated, poses unknown risks that we simply cannot afford to take. Including E-cigarettes in the Smoke-Free Air Act will save lives.

Setting aside the question of how such a ban would ultimately be enforced, the City Council's sweeping argument against nicotine consumption—"allowing smokers an easy way to maintain their nicotine intake indoors can make quitting even harder"—appears to gloss over the efficacy of nicotine gum and nicotine patches. The FDA prohibits e-cig manufacturers from marketing their product as a smoking cessation device, but for many users it's a far less-harmful way to cope with their addiction. Will this ban drive them back to that sad flock of smokers huddled outside the bar?

When news of such a ban leaked in August, Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health and an e-cig supporter, told us, "You're basically telling a bunch of ex-smokers to go back to cigarettes. I think this would be a public health disaster. [E-cigs] are a product that's literally saving people's lives, people who are literally at risk of disease and death, and giving them an alternative."

And Julie Woessner, a spokesperson for Consumers for Smoke Free Alternatives, argues that "e-cigarettes carry an estimated 1% of the risk of that from smoking and pose no risk to bystanders, as was confirmed in a recent study [pdf] by Dr. Igor Burstyn of Drexel University School of Public Health. Accordingly, there is absolutely no reason why the City of New York should do anything to discourage the use of these potentially life-saving products.

"Legislation such as the type being proposed in New York City is more about politics and less about public health. In fact, if it were truly about public health, the City would be encouraging the use of e-cigarettes as a low-risk alternative to smoking rather than demonizing them."

NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley counters, "Electronic cigarettes are unregulated and the health risks to users are unknown. They may introduce a new generation to nicotine addiction, which could lead to their smoking combustion cigarettes. In addition, electronic cigarettes’ similarity in appearance to cigarettes makes it far more difficult to enforce our current smoking laws, which have saved many lives. While more study is needed on electronic cigarettes, waiting to act is a risk we should not take."

The City Council will hold a hearing on the proposed legislation on Wednesday, December 4th at 10 a.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The bill is being introduced by Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Council Member James F. Gennaro, and Council Health Chair Maria del Carmen Arroyo.