A bill that would ban the public use of electronic cigarettes everywhere traditional cigarettes are prohibited is likely to become law. Yesterday the legislation was approved by the City Council's Health Committee by a vote of 9-0, and it's expected to pass when the full council votes later this evening. [UPDATE: The measure passed 43-8]

During a contentious City Council hearing two weeks ago, e-cigarette advocates heckled Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and the bill's primary sponsor, Councilmember James Gennaro, for claiming that bartenders would have a tough time distinguishing e-cigs from their traditional counterparts, and for urging the passage of the bill despite the dearth of evidence on the health effects of e-cigarettes.

"I tried to give both sides an opportunity to be heard, but every study provided by one side is countered by the other side, which shows the exact opposite thing," Councilmember Peter F. Vallone, Jr. said. Vallone had shown some sympathy for e-cigarette users at the hearing, noting that some of his staff members used them to quit smoking, but he ultimately voted in favor of the bill yesterday. "You heard the Commissioner say it: we just don't know enough right now...to allow them to be smoked in restaurants and other similar places."

The bill's opponents, some of them puffing e-cigarettes in the gallery, claim that the product's primary purpose is to help smokers quit (there is some preliminary evidence to suggest this).

E-cigarette executives from NJOY, Lorillard, and Logic also testified against the bill. Former Surgeon General and current NJOY board member Dr. Richard Carmona submitted written testimony panning the bill, and again sent letters to the City Council this week restating his position.

Following the hearing, a Times op-ed from two Columbia professors voiced support for e-cigarettes, and Joe Nocera all but embraced NJOY's corporate philosophy: to make combustible cigarettes obsolete.

"Electronic cigarettes are an unregulated product that threaten to turn back the important gains we as a city have made in the last decade to de-normalize the act of smoking and to maintain a clean air environment to live, work, and play," Councilmember Gennaro said after the Health Committee's passage.

Julie Woessner, the spokeswoman for Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives, warned that the bill could provoke smokers to switch back to combustible cigarettes.

"Banning the use of e-cigarettes in public places does not further public health, and, in fact, would actually work against the interests of public health by discouraging smokers from using smoke-free e-cigarettes, which pose an estimated 1% of the risk of smoking," Woessner said, citing a study from Drexel University [PDF].

The bill is one of 25 that the City Council is scheduled to vote on today, and would tack on e-cigarettes to the Smoke-Free Air Act of 2002. The bill will go into effect four months after the mayor signs it into law, with signage requirements kicking in after six months. Notably, Commissioner Farley admitted during the hearing that enforcement would be mostly up to the establishment's owners.