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Vapor Conflict
E-Cigarettes ignite debate about smoking in bars and restaurants.

Kaitlin Steinberg

The only regular smokers I know are in the restaurant industry, and in spite of the fact that anyone can see them smoking outside between shifts, none of them wanted to admit to smoking e-cigarettes.

"Is it because e-cigarettes look kind of silly?" I asked. "Or is it because you don't want to give the impression that you're harming your palates with nicotine?"

No and no, everyone said. They just didn't want to talk about it. Then they would turn away and continue puffing on a device that resembles a shiny ballpoint pen.

People are starting to talk more about e-cigarettes, though, as the once-oddball implements are becoming more common everywhere from the classroom to the boardroom and many restaurants in between. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the New York City Council announced that it would add e-cigarettes to the 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act, effectively banning them from all public places. Though the ban will ultimately come down to a vote, it's raising a question that many have so far neglected to answer: Should e-cigarettes be allowed everywhere regular cigarettes are not?

In Houston, there are no rules regarding this relatively new phenomenon.

According to our local regulations: 

"Smoking is prohibited in enclosed public places. Public places are places in which the public is invited or permitted. Restaurants, bars, museums, libraries, public and private schools, convention centers, theaters, bingo halls, bowling alleys, buses, taxicabs, retail establishments, shopping malls, lobbies, restrooms, and hallways of apartment or condominium buildings are a few examples of enclosed public places where smoking is prohibited except under very limited ­circumstances."

Pretty straightforward until you get to all the rules about how far away you have to be from emergency exits and air vents if you're outside, but that doesn't seem to be a contentious topic. But then there's the question of what constitutes "smoking."

Houston ordinance defines "smoking" as "­inhaling, exhaling, burning, or carrying any lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe, or other lighted tobacco product in any manner or in any form." Logic would follow that because e-cigarettes aren't "lighted," puffing on one doesn't constitute ­smoking.

When a traditional cigarette is lit, it burns tobacco, which releases smoke containing nicotine. The smoker then inhales, bringing nicotine into the lungs. Rather than being lit by a lighter or match, e-cigarettes are battery-powered. They work by turning liquid nicotine into vapor using an atomizer. The user then inhales the vaporized nicotine, which takes the substance into the lungs and bloodstream, creating the same effect as does smoking a traditional cigarette but without the harmful tobacco, tar and carbon dioxide.

E-cigarettes were invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003 and hit the market in China the following year. The smoking devices received an international patent in 2007, but really took off in the U.S. in 2012, when American companies started producing them. They've quickly become popular here, and as a result, individual businesses, cities and states are grappling with how to regulate their use.

Houston has yet to pass any sort of legislation banning e-cigarettes from public places, but Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, recently decided that, like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes should be banned from the college campus. The only place students can smoke is in their cars.

People I talked with about e-cigarettes generally told me they smoke them for one of two reasons: Either they're trying to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, or they want the freedom to smoke anywhere and everywhere.

"I'm not going to smoke an e-cigarette while I drink scotch," a friend told me at a bar one evening as she inhaled deeply on a traditional cigarette. "I'm not trying to quit smoking. I just like to be able to smoke on airplanes or in restaurants."

Another friend echoed her opinion. "Did you know you can put weed in them and get high while you're on an airplane?" he asked. I'm not entirely sure how that works, but he swore it was possible.

I asked a nonsmoker what he thought about e-cigarettes, and his answer surprised me, because generally, people seem to tolerate their use. "I know the long-term effects of smoking cigarettes," he said, "but I don't know the long-term effects of smoking e-cigarettes. What if I smoke them for 50 years and suddenly doctors discover they're bad for you, too?"

It's an interesting question, and one that is still very much up in the air. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more children and teens are using e-cigarettes because there are few age restrictions on their purchase. This, coupled with the tasty nicotine flavors available for e-cigarettes (everything from gummy bears to s'mores), makes health professionals worry that their use could result in children smoking traditional cigarettes.

Advocates note that because e-cigarettes don't contain any of the chemicals that are thought to cause cancer, they're safe to smoke, but the CDC says that more studies need to be done.

So what if they are perfectly healthy? What if they're no worse than a glass of wine or a cup of coffee? If nonsmokers knew for a fact they weren't victims of secondhand smoke, would they stop complaining?

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