Electronic cigarettes lost in the regulatory mist

February 1, 2014
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Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
Citizens Library in Washington has posted signs at the entrances prohibiting smoking, including e-cigarettes. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/ Observer-Reporter
Al Harmon, owner of Serenity Vapes in Washington, smokes an electronic cigarette. E-cigarettes are battery-powered, don’t contain tobacco and instead turn a liquid that can contain nicotine into vapor. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
E-cigarettes come in all different designs and price ranges. At Serenity Vapes, the price ranges from $25 to more than $100. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
E-cigarettes allow for customization. There are different mouthpieces of all colors and shapes, even a dragon. Order a Print

Electronic cigarettes have been hailed as a way for nicotine fiends to have their smoke without the fire.

Fueled by a lithium battery and containing a cartridge, a vaporization chamber and a liquid that can contain nicotine, electronic cigarettes – or e-cigarettes, as they are more widely known – are said to allow smokers who have puffed the tobacco cigarettes that we have known for hundreds of years to instead get the habit or nicotine they crave without breathing in and exhaling the smoke that pushes carcinogens into their lungs and out into the atmosphere.

The practice is, in fact, often called “vaping” rather “smoking” due to the fact that e-cigarette users inhale a vapor that contains no carbon dioxide or tar and it generates no odor or ash. Proponents say e-cigarettes can be a bridge for smokers looking to quit or, at the very least, a way to get the nicotine minus the distinct possibility of coming down with emphysema or contracting lung or throat cancer.

Those less enamored of e-cigarettes counter that too little is known about the effects of vaping to make a sound judgment one way or another about their health effects. Developed in China about a decade ago, they began to make headway in North America starting in 2009 or thereabouts.

But the fact that electronic cigarettes are neither fish nor fowl, not tobacco but not exactly candy, has put them in a foggy regulatory mist. In the absence of sweeping state laws that would prohibit or strictly circumscribe their use, various public and private institutions are having to craft their own rules about when and how electronic cigarettes can be used.

“We are catching up,” said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of the San Francisco-based group Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. “We are scratching the surface in some respects.”

Her organization advocates limiting the use and sale of e-cigarettes with the same stringency of their tobacco-packed counterparts because “the jury is still out” on them and “we don’t really know that (they are) safer.”

According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, just three states – North Dakota, New Jersey and Utah – have enacted laws that restrict the use of e-cigarettes in places where smoking is not allowed. Otherwise, states and municipalities have adopted a patchwork of codes and ordinances.

As questions about electronic cigarettes remain cloudy, on the state level there are moves afoot to regulate electronic cigarettes with the same stringency applied to tobacco. State Sen. Tim Solobay , D-Canonsburg, has introduced a bill that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in December, and awaits approval from the full Senate. When a report was released in September from the Centers for Disease Control reporting that e-cigarette use had doubled in one year among students in junior high and high school, Solobay said in a news release that laws should be swiftly adopted “to address new trends in the consumer marketplace. Electronic cigarettes could help many adults quit using more harmful tobacco products, but they could also start teens down the road of smoking prior to becoming adults.

At Citizens Library in Washington, a sign was recently posted by one of the entrances warning patrons not to use e-cigarettes. Director Diane Ambrose said it was put there as a preemptive measure after a few library visitors were seen with e-cigarettes, though they did not use them while they were in the building.

“No, we really haven’t had a problem with e-cigarettes,” she explained, adding that the prohibition against the use of e-cigarettes is in keeping with the library’s general policy that forbids the use of tobacco.

Jodi Dague, general manager for Tanger Outlets in South Strabane Township, said that the outdoor shopping center had no specific code on e-cigarette use.

“We don’t. Honestly, I haven’t given it much thought. If we see someone with electronic cigarettes, we don’t stop them. We haven’t gotten any corporate direction.”

She added, “We’ll follow what the law says.”

Washington Hospital, on the other hand, has a smoke-free policy that forbids employees to smoke not just near the building but across the street from it, “and we would include electronic cigarettes as well,” said Sharon Battistone, the hospital’s human resources director.

Washington & Jefferson College has not yet adopted a policy on where and when e-cigarettes can be used, according to Robert Reid, the college’s communications manager. “It is something that will be looked at in the spring for the new edition of the student handbook,” he said.

“We’re trying to figure out which direction as well,” said Robin King, the senior vice president for enrollment and university relations at Waynesburg University. “It’s going to be addressed in the future. It’s going to be a matter of discussion.”

One local business where using electronic cigarettes is not only allowed, but encouraged, is Serenity Vapes on North Main Street in Washington. His store specializes in e-cigarettes, but manager Al Harmon says he respects rules in other public places that prohibit their use. “I don’t push it when I go out,” he said, adding, “I remember the days when you could smoke cigarettes in a grocery store.”

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from George State University in Atlanta, Ga., and a master’s in popular culture studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has covered the arts and entertainment for the O-R, and also worked as a municipal beat reporter. He now serves as editorial page editor.

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