Local health officials applaud federal plans to keep electronic cigarettes away from minors, yet they believe a grassroots effort is still needed to regulate tobacco alternatives.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to extend its authority over the sale of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes and nicotine delivery devices such as gels and dissolvable chews.
The FDA has begun a 75-day public comment period, but it could be some time before the agency decides to enact the regulations, according to Joan Rubel of Berkshire AHEC.
"The FDA action is a good first step and I fully support their regulations," Rubel said. "There is still a need for local communities to take action to protect youth from these unregulated products and to try and prevent the next generation from developing nicotine addiction."
Tri-Town Health Department Director James Wilusz says the FDA regulations would be a boost to cities and towns fighting the onslaught of e-cigarette products.
"We're chasing ‘Big Tobacco' with a limited amount of resources," said Wilusz, whose Lee-based agency oversees the state-funded Tobacco Awareness Program in Berkshire County.
Currently, state and federal regulations prevent tobacco sales to anyone under 18 and prohibit their use in public places such as government buildings, schools, and restaurants. Six Berkshire communities are among the only two dozen Massachusetts cities and towns, including Boston, in the past three years to treat e-cigarettes the same as tobacco products.
Pittsfield, North Adams, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington revised its regulations as a precaution due to the lack of research of the potential health risks of e-cigarettes, according to anti-tobacco advocates.
"Until consistent scientific evidence and FDA determines e-cigarettes and other nicotine delivery devices are not a public health risk, from use to air quality, our program will continue to advocate local boards of health be conservative and locally regulate to protect our youth and public," said Tri-Town Health Department Director James Wilusz. The Lee-based health agency oversees the state-funded Tobacco Awareness program in Berkshire County.
Late last summer, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing nationwide e-cigarette use among middle and high school students had double since 2011.
A year later, the CDC found 1.78 million students were using e-cigarettes, about 10 percent having never smoked traditional tobacco products.
"Kids see e-cigarettes not as real cigarettes as they have different flavors and look cool," said Rubel, "but they still have the addiction which is nicotine."
While the health risks of tobacco alternatives are unknown, Wilusz says they could be just as harmful as the real thing.
"They may not have the 200 plus chemicals of tobacco, items such as liquid nicotine are addictive and can lead to other drug use," he said.
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In the absence of state and federal regulations, six Berkshire County towns treat electronic cigarettes and nicotine delivery products the same as traditional cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products.
Pittsfield, North Adams, Lee, Lenox, Stockridge and Great Barrington prohibit the use of e-cigarettes and related items in public places including businesses, restaurants, retail stores, municipal buildings and public transportation.
Users of e-cigarettes must be a certain distance away from these places to avoid second had smoke or vapor penetrating the buildings.
For more information regarding smoking regulations in Massachusetts cities and towns, go online www.mahb.org/Directory.aspx