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Increasing use of e-cigs raising legal issues

Mary Tobwho co-owns Quitters an electronic cigarette store Burbank displays some products sold there.  |  Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media

Mary Tobin, who co-owns Quitters, an electronic cigarette store in Burbank, displays some of the products sold there. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 8, 2014 9:36AM



When she “vapes,” Mary Tobin enjoys a blend of mango, papaya and strawberry while her husband, Chris, is more of a butterscotch and vanilla guy.

Both smoked cigarettes for more than 20 years, but quit in August 2010 in favor of electronic cigarettes, and a year ago opened a shop devoted exclusively to e-cigarettes. The name of the Burbank store, Quitters, reflects their triumph over tobacco.

The term “vape” is shorthand for inhaling the vapor created by an e-cigarette, with “vapers” able to pick from a wide range of flavors. But where and when it’s OK to “vape” is a hazy issue, with differing views on how to classify e-cigarettes.

In other words, a smoke’s not always a smoke, at least where the law is concerned.

The Smoke-Free Illinois Act that took effect in January 2008 doesn’t cover e-cigarettes, meaning that, technically, they’re fine for use in a public place where a regular cigarette is not. The makers of some of the products advertise them as such.

There’s “nothing (in the law) that expressly addresses” e-cigarettes, Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said. The law covers “lit” items such as cigarettes and cigars, but e-cigarettes aren’t ignited and technically don’t come under the statute, she said.

“It’s kind of a semantics thing,” Arnold said.

The battery-operated devices heat a liquid, which may or may not contain nicotine, and hold an atomizer that converts the liquid into a vapor. What’s exhaled is “as inert as water vapor,” said Chris Tobin, a police officer.

E-cigarette users can, over time, reduce the amount of nicotine they’re ingesting or eliminate it altogether in favor of flavored-only liquids. While they’re not touted as a way for smokers to quit, e-cigarettes don’t contain the bounty of chemicals associated with traditional cigarettes, users say.

Officials in some Southland communities said using an e-cigarette in a public place would be treated the same as if someone lit up a regular smoke, provided that someone complained. Consolidated High School District 230’s policy of barring tobacco products from its campuses includes e-cigarettes, a spokeswoman said.

Other suburbs said that because e-cigarettes aren’t classified as tobacco products, they would, in theory, be exempt and beyond the reach of law enforcement.

If e-cigarette users are vaping in public, they’re apparently not drawing much attention to themselves.

Police chiefs in two communities, Mokena and Tinley Park, couldn’t recall their officers responding to any complaints of e-cigarette use in public places.

To ensure that e-cigarettes aren’t used in a public setting, Chicago aldermen in January voted to restrict them to outdoors, and Orland Park trustees may follow suit. Any store that sells e-cigarettes would not be able to demonstrate how they work to a potential customer, under the proposal.

At Quitters, the Tobins and their customers freely partake of e-cigarettes in the shop, with customers trying new flavors of liquids. The Tobins said responsible vapers don’t indiscriminately smoke in public.

“We always tell people to ask” before using them in a public place, Chris Tobin said.

Because e-cigarettes don’t produce smoke or carbon monoxide, there’s no hazard to nonusers as there is with secondhand cigarette smoke, according to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association.

Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration argues that e-cigarettes “have not been fully studied” and wants to extend its jurisdiction over them.

Because of some of the flavors of e-cigarette liquids, such as assorted candies and fruits, there are concerns that they could induce kids to try them and perhaps move on to the real thing. To combat that, as of Jan. 1, a state law limiting the sale of e-cigarettes to those 18 and older took effect.

State officials, while “concerned about e-cigarettes,” are holding off on further restrictions for now, Arnold said.

“Illinois and a lot of other states are looking to the FDA to rule on this,” she said.

Chris Tobin said that since he and his wife began using e-cigarettes almost four years ago, the technology has improved dramatically and products are more widely available.

The industry is approaching $5 billion in annual sales, but the room for growth appears unlimited, Cynthia Cabrera, executive director of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, said in a recent statement. The group is holding a conference in Chicago next month.

“It’s still a relatively young category,” Cabrera said.

Mary Tobin said Quitters has been well received and has a growing customer base. She said that, like she and her husband, it has helped others who want to kick the smoking habit.

“This is my favorite job,” she said.



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