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Boston wants new limits on e-cigarettes

Sales to minors targeted

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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The Boston Public Health Commission yesterday unanimously approved proposed rules that would crack down on the sale of electronic cigarettes, known as e-cigarettes and increasingly popular among teens, by regulating them like actual cigarettes.

The battery-powered products, which often resemble cigarettes, deliver nicotine in the form of vapor and have been largely unregulated.

The commission’s proposal would require retailers to obtain a permit to sell them and prohibit their sale to minors. It would also ban use of e-cigarettes in the workplace.

“We don’t know what people are inhaling with these e-cigarettes,’’ said Nikysha Harding, director of tobacco control for the commission. “We see these as a gateway for youth to become addicted to nicotine.’’

The board gave initial approval, as well, to doubling the fines for retailers who sell tobacco products to consumers under age 18 or violate other tobacco control regulations. The rules also would prohibit the sale of low-cost, single cigars just slightly larger than cigarettes that have become an attractive option for price-conscious youth looking for alternatives to cigarettes. Called cigarillos and often marketed in seductive flavors such as “pink berry,’’ they sell for as little as 50 cents each.

After a month-long public comment period and a hearing next month, the commission will vote on Nov. 10 whether to make the rules final. They would become effective within 30 days, except the cigarillo restrictions would go into force 60 days later.

If the rules become final, retailers would have to apply for a permit through the commission’s Tobacco Control office to sell e-cigarettes, which are often marketed as nicotine replacement therapy to help smokers quit.

The products are made of plastic and metal and heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge to create vapor that the smoker inhales. Currently, it is legal to sell e-cigarettes to children.

Harding said commission surveyors have found e-cigarettes sold in Boston for as low as $9.99, which pays for a cigarette with two cartridges, each of which contains enough nicotine solution for about 300 puffs. The equivalent number of puffs from regular cigarettes would cost roughly $7 more.

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 - and more stores are interested in selling them, the commission said.

The regulations would require that e-cigarettes be placed behind the store counter, like tobacco products, and that they not be sold to minors. Electronic cigarette use would be banned in the workplace, which includes restaurant patios and decks, and loading docks.

At least two other Massachusetts communities - South Hadley and North Attleboro - already regulate the sale of e-cigarettes, according to the Boston commission.

The US Food and Drug Administration was barred earlier by a federal judge this year from regulating e-cigarettes as a medical device, unless they are marketed for therapeutic purposes.

The administration has since proposed rules that would regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco products. It said limited lab studies found significant quality-control issues and some evidence of toxic chemicals.

Yet Dr. Michael Siegel, a Boston University School of Public Health tobacco control specialist who has studied e-cigarettes, said there is also evidence that the products may be helpful in getting smokers to kick the habit.

Unlike other smoking cessation products, such as nicotine patches, e-cigarettes satisfy a basic craving shared by many smokers, he said.

“The very thing that gets smokers to quit is that they simulate smoking behavior,’’ Siegel said. “You ask smokers, what is the hardest thing about quitting, and they say, ‘I don’t know what to do with my hands.’ ’’

As for cigarillos, the commission’s proposed rules would require they be sold in their original manufacturer packaging of at least five and bear a health warning.

Fines for retailers found in violation of the city’s tobacco control regulations would double - 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.

A public hearing on the proposed regulation is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Hayes Conference Room on the second floor of commission’s offices at 1010 Massachusetts Ave.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar

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