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An end run on smoking ban

BY CHRIS CURTLAND | NOVEMBER 17, 2009 7:21 AM

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Alex Fischels appeared to be smoking on a Chicago’s restaurant patio when the waiter shot him a nasty glare.

But the UI senior wasn’t puffing on a cigarette — he was taking a drag of nicotine vapor from an e-cigarette.

“I don’t think he had a clue what it was,” the 21-year-old said. “But he was not cool with it.”

The white, cylindrical device looks like a real one, but it runs on a lithium battery and produces a steam-like mist that looks like real smoke. The e-cigarette uses no tobacco; rather, it atomizes liquid nicotine, producing a vapor that is drawn into the lungs.

Because the product’s manufacturers — including the brand Ruyan, sold at the Coralville Tobacco Outlet — claim the e-cigarettes have none of the harmful chemicals found in the smoke of other tobacco products, Iowans can use the device in areas deemed “smoke-free” by the Iowa Smokefree Air Act.

And that’s why Fischels splurged on one, at a cost of $60 online. With his new instrument, he can get his nicotine fix legally in places where smoking is prohibited, including his workplace, the movie theater, and his apartment.

“I saw it and was like, ‘What the hell? A digital cigarette,’ ” Fischels said. “Regular cigarettes are just as bad for you, so I figured it’s worth a shot.”

But experts are keen to point out they believe the devices are not risk-free.

E-cigarettes contain nicotine and other chemicals that could be toxic, said Mary Aquilino, the director of the Iowa Tobacco Research Center.

The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate e-cigarettes — which, she said, concerns her because different manufacturers use varying amounts of nicotine and other chemicals in the production.

Because they’re not age-restricted, as are other FDA-regulated nicotine products, and because they are offered in an array of flavors, she said they could potentially increase appeal to young people.

“Some view them as a likely bridge to smoking for youth,” she added.

The FDA has performed “limited testing” on them, finding they contain “detectable levels” of carcinogens, and the agency has warned against their use, according to an FDA news release.

Because the product doesn’t emit smoke and is likewise not regulated by the smoking ban, it has left some local bar employees unclear about how they would handle a user in their establishments.

“If it’s legal and OK to do, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” said Victoria Messina, a server at Vito’s, 118 E. College St., who noted that she has not encountered a user.

But Tim Hopper, a bartender and manager at DC’s, 124 S. Dubuque St., said he would be more wary if he saw someone exhaling a smoke-like haze.

“I don’t think we would allow it,” he said, pointing out that if patrons saw someone smoking an e-cigarette, they might be prompted to spark up real ones. “It’d put out the wrong idea.”

Since Fischels bought the e-cigarette in July, he said he uses it about four or five times a week. He noted the device shouldn’t be confusing to other people because the end lights up — his is blue — and the vapor doesn’t have a smoky smell.

“People still try to give me weird looks, though,” he said.


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