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A bill that would include electronic cigarettes in the state’s smoking ban is garnering strong support from health advocates but vocal opposition from those who claim the products are key to kicking tobacco-smoking habits.

E-cigarettes use batteries to heat liquid that has nicotine in it and produce a vapor that users inhale. Advocates say that, since e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco or produce smoke, they likely pose fewer health risks to those who “vape.”

Rep. Jay Case, R-Torrington, has introduced legislation that would add e-cigarettes to the definition of “smoking” in the section of state statutes that outlines Connecticut’s smoking ban. State law currently defines “smoking” as “the lighting or carrying of a lighted cigarette, cigar, pipe or similar device.”

The bill was among many that were part of a Public Health Committee public hearing Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building. 

The Connecticut State Medical Society is one of the groups urging lawmakers to pass the legislation.

“Unfortunately, many people view electronic cigarettes as a safer alternative to both smoke and smokeless tobacco products. This is simply not true,” the society said in written testimony. “Nicotine delivered electronically is just as addictive and damaging as nicotine inhaled or otherwise absorbed by means of traditional tobacco products.”

The society also worries about flavoring that is added to e-cigarettes, saying it “is designed to entice our children and youth to engage,” according to the testimony.

“Allowing their use in public places creates the false impression that such products are not as harmful or addictive as tobacco,” the society said.

Under current state law, smoking is prohibited in buildings owned, leased or operated by the state; any part of a healthcare institution; restaurants; and any area of an establishment that has a liquor permit. Smoking also is banned in school buildings while school is in session or students activities are taking place, in passenger elevators, in public or private college dorms, and in dog race tracks or places that simulcast off-track betting race programs or jai alai.

The bill, H.B. 5449, aims “to support public health and close a loophole in the smoking ban” by banning the use of e-cigarettes in places where smoking tobacco products is banned.

Tobacco smoking rates have been declining but the use of e-cigarettes “has been essentially recruiting people into nicotine addiction and smoking,” according to testimony submitted by Janine Sullivan-Wiley, executive director of the Waterbury-based nonprofit Northwest Regional Mental Health Board Inc.

In urging lawmakers to pass the bill, she testified that allowing e-cigarettes to be used where other forms of smoking are banned can trigger relapses for those who have quit or are trying to quit smoking and “serve as a gateway for youth to nicotine addiction and tobacco use.” 

Several former tobacco smokers submitted testimony have strongly urged committee members to reject the bill.

One of them was David Peterson, who found out about a year ago that he had stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer, and was advised to quit smoking cigarettes because of side effects related to his chemotherapy.

With the help of e-cigarettes, he went from smoking a pack a day to using no nicotine within a month, he said.

“By taking this option for those who want to quit away, you are in a sense giving the power right back to the big tobacco companies,” he testified. “Had it not been for e-cigs, I would probably still be smoking and causing long-term damage to myself. Please don’t ruin it for us that choose to vape and not smoke cigarettes.”

Another former smoker, Dan Hurbon of Waterbury, submitted testimony that he smoked cigarettes for 10 years and suffered from breathing problems. He has been vaping for a year and breathes more easily, has lower blood pressure and is healthier overall, he said.

Andrew Bowe of Mansfield testified that he quit smoking with the help of e-cigarettes after his fiance suffered a collapsed lung.

“While electronic cigarettes are not an approved smoking cessation tool, I personally know over a dozen people who have no intention of attempting to break their nicotine addiction but have quit smoking tobacco and now use electronic nicotine vaporizers exclusively,” he said in written testimony.

He said he would support a bill that regulates the ingredients and manufacturing of e-cigarettes, “but not a blanket ban.” 

There is not enough science or research to “support treating (e-cigarettes) as conventional cigarettes,” said Fred Ampolini, president of R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., in written testimony opposing the bill. The North Carolina-based company makes VUSE Digital Vapor Cigarettes.

“Lawmakers should consider the most responsible manner in which to treat these products,” he wrote. He suggested the bill be amended to prohibit the use of vapor products in any “youth-focused facilities” and in medical facilities.

The American Vaping Association also opposes “any regulation that would make vapor products less accessible, affordable or attractive to Connecticut adult smokers,” according to testimony submitted by President Gregory Conley. The New Jersey-based nonprofit advocates for small and mid-sized businesses in the vaping industry.

But others maintained that vaping is dangerous and e-cigarettes should be treated similarly to tobacco cigarettes.

“The public should not be forced to breathe the vapors from e-cigarette users. The vapors are turning out to be harmful, as formaldehyde is both a chemical sensitizer and a carcinogen,” said Nancy Alderman, president of North Haven-based advocacy nonprofit Environment and Human Health, in submitted testimony.

Research also has found chromium, a toxin, in e-cigarette vapor, she said.

Case, who introduced the bill, testified that e-cigarettes pose a danger because they are becoming more popular among students in the state.

“Currently, there are no regulations on the usage of e-cigarettes in educational facilities,” he said in his testimony. “The lack of regulation of e-cigarettes has caused schools and college campuses to foster an unhealthy atmosphere which promotes drug use among Connecticut’s youth.”