PUBLIC HEALTH officials in Boston have been ahead of the curve with their aggressive efforts to curb smoking in the city. But the recent decision of the Boston Public Health Commission to forbid the use of battery-operated e-cigarettes in the workplace may unintentionally undermine the commission’s wider public health goals.
The e-cigarettes now catching on among some health-conscious smokers allow users to inhale nicotine vapor without fire, smoke, ash, or carbon monoxide. Unlike other nicotine replacement products, such as gum and patches, this one is shaped and manipulated like a cigarette, allowing users to better satisfy their cravings.
The research on the health effects of e-cigarettes is not exhaustive. The city’s Public Health Commission wisely required retailers to apply for permits to sell e-cigarettes. The commission also asked retailers to keep the product behind sales counters, and allow purchases only to people age 18 and above. But banning the use of e-cigarettes in the workplace could keep smokers ducking outside for their hourly fix instead of opting for a safer product.
Most of the blame, however, must rest on the manufacturers of the product itself, who have resisted efforts at regulation by the federal Food and Drug Administration by labeling e-cigarettes as devices for smoking pleasure, not therapeutic devices for nicotine replacement. Boston Public Health commissioner Barbara Ferrer said the commission would reconsider the workplace ban if, and when, the products are thoroughly tested, regulated, and approved by the FDA.
Still, one member of the health commission, Harold Cox, thinks the workplace ban was too hasty. He pointed to public testimony from smokers who said that e-cigarettes helped them to quit. And he cites health advocates who find a dearth of evidence linking e-cigarettes to cancer or any other health risks normally associated with smoking.
The commission has good cause to take a wait-and-see attitude on the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes. But the doors of employers should be open to their use if e-cigarettes are found to be as safe as lozenges, gum, patches, and other forms of nicotine replacement.