February 04, 2010
|E-Cig Circumvents State Smoking Ban|
Guilford County may have banned smoking from area bars and restaurants at the first of the year, but technology is giving county health officials and other anti-smoking advocates fits. "E-cigs" – also known as "electronic cigarettes" – are becoming the nicotine dispenser of choice now that smoking traditional cigarettes has been declared illegal in most public buildings.
Electronic cigarettes are meant to simulate the experience of smoking a cigarette, and many designs look like the real thing, light up like real ones and release a puff of vapor. They're battery-powered nicotine dispensers that "vaporize" the nicotine but, since there's no tobacco and no combustion, e-cigs aren't covered by state laws that ban smoking.
According to Guilford County Tobacco Prevention Coordinator Mary Gillett, the product can cause confusion when bar patrons light up their electronic cigarettes because, while it's not illegal to do so, anti-smokers at bars can get upset with the fact that people are apparently smoking.
Gillett said bar owners can order patrons to put them out – or, rather, turn them off.
"They can do it the same way they can say, 'No shoes, no service,'" she said.
Gillette said that, since the product is relatively new, there are a great deal of questions about the safety of the device and how it compares with cigarettes.
Health claims about the product at this point are all over the place – from "There's nothing in the product that causes cancer," to, "It's just as bad if not worse for you than a traditional cigarette."
And, though an e-cig does put off a "vapor," that only happens when someone takes a drag on it – it's not a continuous stream of smoke as with a lit cigarette, and advocates of the product say there's no danger for those around the e-smoker as there is from secondhand smoke put off by traditional cigarettes.
The legislation that banned smoking in most public buildings starting at the first of this year defines "smoking" as, "The use or possession of a lighted cigarette, lighted cigar, lighted pipe, or any other lighted tobacco product."
Electronic cigarettes aren't the first loophole – if they are indeed one – in the law that someone has tried to use to get around the ban. Some argue that an ambiguity in the smoking ban allows clubs to ignore the ban simply by declaring an establishment a county club – as one Greensboro club owner has already done; and others may follow suit if the name-change maneuver holds up in court.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said the law is the law, and he added that, since using electronic cigarettes isn't illegal, it must be legal.
"The law is not supposed to be subjective," Barnes said.
Guilford County Security Director Jeff Fowler said he hasn't seen anyone smoking electronic cigarettes in the Guilford County Courthouse or in other county buildings.
"I did see someone smoking one in line," said Fowler, who added that he did a double take when he saw it.
The courthouse lines often get very long and all the people with lengthy waits on cold mornings need something to occupy their time. (If Fowler and his guards do ever need to break up an argument between an e-cig user and anti-smoking advocate in line, they'll soon have a pair of $7,000 Segways to whisk easily to even the very distant end of the line if need be.)
According to Guilford County Health Director Merle Green, as of yet, the health department has no stance on electronic cigarettes.
"The county hasn't taken an official position on e-cigs," Green said. "This has not been an agenda item on county board meeting agendas so far."
The new cigarettes were invented about six years ago but are only now becoming popular in this country.
Companies marketing the electronic nicotine dispensers say it's a product that can help people quit smoking, in much the same way a nicotine patch might help wean someone off cigarettes.
However, as traditional smoking becomes banned in more places, more and more smokers are apparently using e-cigs simply to get their nicotine fix in places where smoking real cigarettes isn't allowed.