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Smokers ‘light up' with e-cigarettes to sidestep bans

Larry Oakes
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Last year, several Minnesota judges ruled that smokers can't pretend to be actors and bars can't pretend to be theaters to get around the state smoking ban.

Now bar customers are showing up with little smokeless nicotine inhalers that pretend to be cigarettes, right down to the lighted red tip.

And although state health officials say the battery-powered atomizers - called "e-cigarettes" - don't appear to violate the ban, they are causing some confusion, with at least a few customers being asked to take them outside.

They include Carrie Goutermont of Silver Bay, Minn. She went online and bought her Smart Fixx Super-Mini Electronic Cigarette and extra liquid nicotine cartridges two weeks ago, hoping it would help her quit smoking. When she drags on the slender white metal cylinder with its painted-on brown "filter," a heated mist of liquid nicotine fills her lungs, and a miniature LCD light on the front end simulates burning tobacco.

"That part's a little cheesy," Goutermont said.

Cheesy or not, her faux cigarette so resembled the real thing that Tom (Charlie) Byrnes, manager of the Silver Bay Municipal Liquor Store and Bar, decided one recent Saturday night to tell her not to "light up." Two other customers who bought their own e-cigs on her recommendation were likewise told to keep their fake smokes stowed.

Byrnes said the problem wasn't secondhand mist or smell, because he couldn't detect any.

"The problem is, they look like a real cigarette," Byrnes said. "Other people coming in the bar will think someone is violating the ban, or they will want to 'smoke' too."

He has forbidden the use of the devices in the bar until his regular health inspector tells him they're legal. Even then, he'll probably seek further approval from the Silver Bay City Council.

Minnesota law appears to be on the side of the e-nonsmokers, according to Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. He said the department studied the devices after getting a few calls during the past year from people wondering whether their use is permitted inside public places.

"It's not smoking," Schultz said. "They're not ignited. They don't use tobacco or a plant product. Our interpretation of the statute would be that these types of devices are allowable."

Developed in China in 2004 in response to the growing number of indoor smoking bans worldwide, the fake cigarettes powered by rechargeable lithium batteries are now marketed in at least eight countries under brand names such as Epuffer and Njoy. Brisk sales have been reported in Las Vegas casinos, and vendors have been hawking them at mall kiosks in Portland, Ore., in response to a newly expanded workplace smoking ban.

"It's like breathing a tiny bit of steam," Goutermont said. "It's only there for a second, and it doesn't smell like smoke or anything. It's neat because you get the sensation of inhaling it, and you're still doing something with your hands."

The health effects of the devices haven't been tested, and neither have the claims implied in some advertisements that they can help smokers quit, according to a warning issued last fall by the World Health Organization.

"The electronic cigarette is not a proven nicotine replacement therapy," the organization said in a news release that called for "rigorous peer-reviewed studies" on the safety of the devices and whether they show any promise as a smoking cessation tool.

The American Lung Association of Minnesota advises smokers to save the $60 to $120 they'd spend on an e-cigarette starter kit and quit altogether.

"This is a fairly ridiculous apparatus - a gimmick," spokesman Bob Moffitt said. "It would be like somebody going around puffing on a piece of chalk. Nobody in the medical community approves of these."

But Goutermont said she hasn't had to smoke a real cigarette since getting the fake one two weeks ago. Fellow e-cig puffer Eugene Keller of Silver Bay said he'd rather fight than switch off.

"This is discrimination," Keller said. "People can chew tobacco in the bar, and this doesn't even contain tobacco. I am going to the city administration to ask why I can't do this."

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