By Randy Billings

The City Council voted 7-1 Monday night to prohibit people from using e-cigarettes in public places, making Portland the 275th U.S. community to restrict use of the relatively new technology.

Businesses like Old Port Vape, however, can continue to allow customers to use their products in their stores.

The council vote added e-cigarettes to the city's anti-smoking ordinance, which was updated in 2013 to prevent smoking in public spaces, such as parks, beaches, restaurants and playgrounds.

E-cigarettes, also known as electronic nicotine delivery systems, are battery-operated devices that heat up a liquid containing varying levels of nicotine and other flavoring chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user.

Users claim that e-cigarettes are an effective tool to help people quit cigarettes. Unlike nicotine patches, gum and medications, e-cigarettes are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration as a method to quit smoking.

Public health advocates argue that using e-cigarettes -- also known as vaping -- should be prohibited in public until more research is conducted, while others say the ban would only encourage people to keep smoking cigarettes.

Sarah Mayberry, of the Public Health Association, urged the council to take "swift action on this emerging health threat."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of middle and high schoolers who reported using an e-cigarette within the last 30 days tripled in the last year and in 2014 surpassed the use of every other tobacco product.

Caitlyn Connors, however, opposed the ordinance. She said that e-cigarettes have helped her quit a 12-year smoking habit. She hasn't smoked a cigarette in 11/2 years and has been inhaling nicotine-free vapor for the last month.

Connors said ignorance about the safety of the vapor emitted is no excuse to ban it in public.

"I feel like 'we don't know' is an unacceptable answer in the realm of public service," said Connors, who gave councilors studies noting the safety of vapors. "I'd rather hear, 'We don't know, but we will find out.' "

Dr. Michael Bell, a Scarborough resident who spends a lot of time in Portland, said e-cigarettes are helping people quit smoking and that regulating them like tobacco will encourage people to keep smoking cigarettes.

"It's scientifically inaccurate to equate vaping with tobacco," said Bell, who said nicotine by itself is no more harmful than coffee or French fries.

"I have no love for tobacco or smoking or anything along those lines," he said. "This could save more lives than we could possibly imagine."

Councilor David Marshall, however, noted that the proposal would "level the playing field" between traditional cigarettes and vapes, which wouldn't make one more attractive than another.

"It's not any more restrictive than that over people who would be using cigarettes," Marshall said.

(c)2015 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)