This story was updated May 5, 2016 at 9:55 a.m.
County health officials want to ban the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices everywhere regular cigarettes are already prohibited.
Members of the Allegheny County Board of Health have instructed health department officials to come up with a policy by the board's next meeting in July.
That instruction came just ahead of an announcement from the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday, which said it would extend its authority to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. In 2008, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the Clean Indoor Air Act, which outlawed smoking in workplaces and public spaces such as restaurants and retail stores.
Board member Bill Youngblood made the motion calling for the creation of the policy.
“It’s second-hand smoke in any way you look at it, and no one seems to know what’s in the vapor that comes out of the vapes or the smoke that comes out of the e-cigarettes,” he said.
University of Pittsburgh Health Policy Institute researcher Megan Tulikangas said there is very little regulation or oversight of the e-cigarette and vaping industry, “so it’s really hard to make generalizations of what is in an e-cigarette.”
She said the term “vaping” – derived from the word vapor – is in itself misleading.
“The term vapor implies that it’s just water,” she said. “So there’s an implied harmlessness to the products.”
In reality, there is usually little or no actual water in vaping products, Tulikangas said. Instead, the base of the vaping liquid is typically comprised of either propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin. She said e-liquids can contain anywhere from 0 to 36 milligrams of nicotine and that there are no consistent standards for labeling.
The chemicals used to flavor the liquids are also a mystery, she said, despite sometimes being labeled as “natural” or “organic.”
Because of the lack of standardization in the ingredients of vaping liquid, Tulikangas said researchers have had difficulty making generalizations about the risks involved with using e-cigarettes or vaping devices.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has said regulators are “in desperate need of clarity” regarding these potential risks.
Researchers at Harvard University published a study last year finding that chemicals used in some flavorings can cause scarring in the lungs.
Tulikangas said the flavors themselves also contribute to the perception of harmlessness associated with e-cigarettes.
“The most popular flavors of e-cigarettes and e-liquids are candy flavors and also desserts, as well as a group called cereals or breakfast,” she said. “So think back to your favorite fruity cereal, now available in a vape, without the calories.”
According to the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 13.4 percent of high school students and 3.9 percent of middle school students had used e-cigarettes or vaping products at least once during the previous 30-day period. Tulakangis said those figures had more than tripled from 2013. The same data show cigarette use among teens has been cut nearly in half since 2011.
Pennsylvania and Michigan are the only two states where it is legal to sell vaping products to minors.
Board member Don Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, said it’s important for Allegheny County to recognize and communicate the potential dangers of using e-cigarettes and vaping products.
“Particularly when it comes to young people, any lifelong addiction is to be avoided,” he said. “We should do everything we can to not have our young people start with these e-cigarettes thinking they’re safe and end up with a lifelong addiction.”
Burke said e-cigarettes and vaping devices may be useful as a harm reduction approach for people who want to quit smoking conventional cigarettes.
Health Department Director Karen Hacker said, if approved by the board of health, the policy would have to be passed by County Council and signed into law by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald before taking effect.
Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.