Boston health officials voted yesterday 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 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.
“A whole generation is not going to start using tobacco and nicotine products,’’ Margaret Reid, who oversees the commission’s tobacco control program, said in an interview after the vote. “Cheap cigars aren’t going to be cheap anymore, and unregulated nicotine products won’t be sold to kids.’’
The ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and the rule on cigarellos passed unanimously, and the workplace restriction passed 5 to 1.
Under the new regulations, retailers must apply for a permit 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 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 FDA has since proposed rules to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products are regulated. The agency said it conducted a preliminary analysis on samples of e-cigarettes from two leading brands and found significant quality-control issues and some evidence of toxic chemicals.
Some tobacco control 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 smokers are using e-cigarettes to help them curb or kick the habit.
An FDA spokeswoman declined to comment.
Because e-cigarettes are still relatively new, there is limited research on their health risks and benefits.
“I really struggled with this for a long time,’’ said commission member Harold Cox, associate dean of public health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Cox, who voted with the rest of commission members to ban sales of e-cigarettes to minors, was the lone dissenter on the separate vote on whether to prohibit the products in the workplace.
He pointed out testimony submitted during the commission’s public comment period from people who said the products helped them quit smoking and cited a dearth of evidence on the levels of hazardous chemicals e-cigarettes may contain.
“Many times, when we make policies around public health, we want to have something that says we believe this is the right thing to do because it will prevent something or protect something,’’ Cox said. But most times, he said, those decisions are based on ample data. That’s not the case with e-cigarettes, he said.
As for cigars, the commission approved a requirement that they be sold in their original manufacturing packaging of at least four, which is intended to combat sales of individual cigars to minors.
Also yesterday, the panel 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 Jan. 31, 2012.