Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday proposed banning the sale of e-cigarettes to people younger than 18 and subjecting the devices to the same sales restrictions applied to traditional cigarettes.
The regulations, which Healey can put into effect after seeking public comment, would help standardize practices around the state, where Boston and 151 other municipalities, representing nearly two-thirds of the population, have enacted age-based limits on e-cigarettes.
The rules would also bring Massachusetts in line with much of the rest of the country: 42 states already ban e-cigarette sales to minors.
Massachusetts regulations currently do not address e-cigarettes, which are slender tubes used to inhale a nicotine-laden vapor. Introduced several years ago, they have grown in popularity, prompting tobacco companies to enter the market. But they have also raised safety concerns. The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing national regulations.
At a State House press conference, Healey said, "These regulations make it clear that in Massachusetts, an e-cigarette is a cigarette when it comes to protecting our kids." Healey will accept public comments via e-mail (AGOregulations@state.ma.us) through April 24, and hold a public hearing April 23, with plans to enact the regulations a month or two after that.
The rules would prohibit promotional giveaways, outlaw sales in any manner other than a face-to-face exchanges, require e-cigarettes to be kept in a location accessible only to store employees, and require e-cigarette retailers to take measures to prevent sales to minors. Child-proof packaging would be required for nicotine-laced liquids or gels used in the devices. E-cigarettes would be allowed in vending machines only in locales that bar children.
With many of these products sold online, Healey acknowledged enforcing age restrictions may be difficult. The regulations allow adults to purchase online and require online sellers to verify the ages of buyers.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat, but do not burn, a liquid containing nicotine derived from tobacco.
E-cigarette proponents say the devices provide a safer alternative for cigarette smokers, without the hazards of inhaled and secondhand smoke. But opponents say they are a way to recruit teens into nicotine addiction and note that their safety has not been established. Many e-cigarettes are infused with sweet flavors, such as "banana split" and "bubble gum."
"Much of the e-cigarette marketing that we see today is basically a page out of the playbook of big tobacco companies from years ago," Healey said. "Use of cartoons, and playful, colorful figures and characters is what we see. Flavors like cinnamon burst, watermelon, and menthol ice. . . . It's clear to me the demographic that some of these manufacturers are looking to market to."
A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2011 and 2012, e-cigarette use more than doubled among high schoolers; the number who reported using an e-cigarette at least once in the previous month increased from 4.7 percent to 10 percent.
Carly K. Caminiti, project manager for Health Resources in Action, a public health advocacy group in Boston, said some teenagers don't realize products labeled as "mango" or "strawberry" contain nicotine and may be lured into a lifelong addiction without knowing it.
But Jennifer Borucki, a 40-year-old resident of Arlington who attended the press conference, said that e-cigarettes enabled her to kick a 27-year cigarette habit. She said she puffs on her e-cigarette occasionally, avoiding smoke altogether and inhaling much less nicotine.
A member of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, Borucki said her group supports restrictions on sales to children but opposes high taxes and other stringent measures that would make it hard for adults to use the product. "If anything," she said, "e-cigarettes are moving people away from cigarettes."
Four e-cigarette makers said they, too, support restrictions on sales to children. They included blu eCigs and Altria, which owns the e-cigarette maker Nu Mark.
"In terms of restricting sales to minors, we could not agree more," said Jeff Holman, chief executive of Vapor Corp. He said his company sells fruit- and chocolate-flavored e-cigarettes because they appeal to adults, just as flavored liqueurs do.
Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, and Senator Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, welcomed Healey's rules as "a big first step." Sanchez and others have proposed legislation that would codify into law Healey's restrictions, and also ban public and workplace use of e-cigarettes.
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at email@example.com.