KALAMAZOO, MI That guy in the customer service line is smoking an electronic cigarette.

So is the teenager in the waiting room. And so is the woman in the employee break room.

Is that allowed? Where can you smoke e cigarettes?

Questions like those are likely to billow in the air for months as the popularity of e cigarette smoking wafts along faster than municipalities, states and the federal government can make decisions on whether the practice is a less harmful alternative to smoking tobacco or rife with yet to be discovered health risks.

“Legally, you can ‘vape’ everywhere,” says James Bearup, using the term that electronic cigarette smokers have coined to describe their smoking. “But realistically, it’s up to the establishment. You may go into some restaurants and they say, ‘We prefer that you not use that in here.’ “

In those cases, Bearup, who is co owner of the Kalamazoo Vapor Shops, said he urges e smokers to respect the wishes of businesses. Bearup and his wife Kristen own the three Kalamazoo Vapor Shops, two in Kalamazoo and one in Grand Rapids.

“There’s been discussion of it in the (Michigan) Legislature,” said Angela Minicuci, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Community Health, “but there’s been no laws passed about the regulation of e cigarettes.”

She also said that because cigarettes have nicotine but do not have tobacco, there is no law that mandates what age a person has to be to buy e cigarette products.

Kalamazoo City Attorney Clyde Robinson said the issue has not come up at the city level.

“To my knowledge, No. 1, there is no ordinance addressing it,” he said, “and No. 2, I’m not aware of someone asking anybody from the city to engage in passing an ordinance regulating electronic cigarettes.”

What are they?

Electronic cigarettes are tubular, handheld devices that can resemble regular cigarettes. They are equipped with a small battery and a small cartomizer, which is a small chamber with a heating element to heat and atomize flavored liquid. It emits a vapor that is drawn into the mouth and smoked by the user. Some have an LED light that shines when the user inhales, like the tip of a standard cigarette.

The liquids in refillable e cigarettes come in a wide variety of flavoring, and contain from 0 to 24 milligrams of nicotine.

“We can’t limit where people use e cigarettes,” Minicuci said. But she said, “All local business have the ability to decide whether or not they are going to allow e cigarettes on their premises.”

Among those who already have general policies against their use are many hospitals, restaurants, movie theaters and public universities. Those establishments appear to be covering e cigarette smoking under the no smoking policies they have for tobacco smoking. Western Michigan University’s policy regarding e smoking is, for instance, the same as it is for tobacco burning cigarettes, says spokeswoman Cheryl Roland.

“Our smoking policies are No smoking in any building and no smoking within 25 feet of building entrance ways,” she said. “That is in effect until Sept. 1 when we move to a totally tobacco free campus. By tobacco free, we mean (no) cigarettes, e cigarettes, chewing tobacco and a wide variety of things. It includes any substance as well that has not been approved by the FDA as a smoking cessation tool.”

Roland said, “I think people look at e cigarettes as some sort of smoking cessation tool but they have not been approved by the FDA for that.”

Kalamazoo Valley Community College has a no smoking policy regarding tobacco cigarettes but spokeswoman Linda Depta said, “We do not have a policy for or against e cigarettes at this time. However we have formed a committee and will be looking at this issue in the near future.”

A big ‘no’ at big venues

Martin Betz, chief operating officer of the Goodrich Quality Theaters, said the 32 location business looks to do what makes the most sense for the majority of its patrons, and e cigarettes are not allowed.

The vapor from e cigarettes looks like regular tobacco smoke and can be a distraction for others watching a movie, Betz said. So when his staff sees someone using e cigarettes, they ask them not to. Among Grand Rapids based Goodrich’s theaters is the Kalamazoo 10 multiplex in Kalamazoo.

Steve VanWagoner, vice president of marketing and public relations for Grand Rapids based Celebration Cinema, whose 12 Michigan locations include the Celebration Cinema Crossroads in Portage, echoed those thoughts. He said, “We do not allow e cigarettes in the building. There are a number of variables that go into that decision but mainly it’s a distraction in a movie auditorium where guests are expecting not to be distracted.”

Mike Modugno, director of public relations and the broadcaster for the Kalamazoo Wings and the Wings Stadium complex, said the stadium bans them for similar reasons.

“In an arena setting, from a distance, you get people complaining, thinking they’re not the e cigs.”

He said, “To enforce the whole policy, it’s beneficial to throw every kind of cigarette in electronic and tobacco.”

Bearup said, “There have been a few places where I’ve been where they’ve ask us not to use electronic cigarettes in big venues because it looks so much like smoking. The reason why a lot places are not vape friendly is because it does look like real smoke.”

Hearing no complaints

Matt Searles, owner of Hometown Vapor in Kalamazoo, said he hasn’t had many issues out in public. He said only one area restaurant has asked him not to vape.

“Vaping is allowed anywhere,” Searles said. “I’ve been in restaurants, retail stores, I’ve been at the mall, Walmart, Meijer.”

Although he said he knows such places have general no smoking policies, he said, “I don’t consider it smoking. That’s why everybody’s going to it. You’re breathing in a vapor. It’s completely different.

“The only thing that’s the same is the nicotine. So you’re getting your nicotine, but you’re not breathing in 1,000 other chemicals carcinogens and cancer causing agents.”

Other e cigarette users have said they have discreetly vaped in bars, restaurants and college classrooms, and staffers didn’t mind after they learned it wasn’t a traditional cigarette.

Searles, 35, said he was a two pack a day smoker who quit a year ago after he discovered e cigarettes and educated himself about them. Eight months ago he started Hometown Vapor, a maker of e liquids and e cigarette accessories. It sells products online now but plans to open a shop on March 17 at 2335 Lake St.

The growing popularity of e cigarettes has the Bearups making plans to open Kalamazoo Vapor shops in other cities. According to at least one national estimate, the sale of e cigarettes and accessories, which started less than six years ago, has become a $1 billion to $2 billion industry.

In four years, the Kalamazoo Vapor Shop has grown from one to three locations and seen an estimated 500 percent growth in sales. It topped more than $1 million in sales last year and, Bearup said, “I don’t expect we will see the industry tapering off for for another 7 to 10 years because there are so many untouched markets.”

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