E-cigarette technology is ahead of the laws

This post has been corrected, as noted below.”

Laguna Beach restaurant owners are coping with customers who choose to boot up battery-powered, vapor-emanating electronic cigarettes in the absence of rules governing use of the devices.

Some restaurant managers see customers "vaping," a term connected with the e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution of propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin that contains nicotine and flavorings.

"Is it legal or illegal? No one knows," said Fouad Ziady, general manager of Las Brisas restaurant, which overlooks the ocean. "We don't have a problem [with customers using e-cigarettes], but there's a no-smoking ordinance in the city."

Laguna Beach does not have any laws pertaining to e-cigarette use, according to John Montgomery, the city's community development director. But e-cigarette regulation could be on the way if state legislators adopt a bill put forward by Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D-East Bay).

SB 648 would amend the state's civil code and classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products, meaning e-cigarettes would be outlawed where regular cigarettes are banned, such as public schools and day-care facilities.

State senators passed the bill, 21-10, moving it to the 17-member Assembly Committee on Government Organization.

The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill Aug. 7, said Eric Johnson, a committee consultant. If committee members approve the bill, it would go to the appropriations fiscal committee, like any other proposed legislation, Johnson said.

An advocacy group that promotes smoke-free alternatives opposes any attempt to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco.

"E-cigarettes do not emit smoke and the vapor is nontoxic," the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Assn.'s website reports. "There is no evidence to support including e-cigarette use in smoking bans. E-cigarettes do not deliver tar or carbon monoxide because they operate using vaporization rather than combustion."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate e-cigarettes unless the product manufacturer makes a therapeutic claim, FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski wrote in an email.

Researchers, including UC Riverside science professor Prue Talbot, are studying e-cigarette components and their effects on the health of users and bystanders.

Talbot and a group of post-doctoral students analyzed aerosol made when the fluid inside the e-cigarette is heated. They found certain metals such as tin, silver and iron in the aerosol.

"Nine of 11 elements in the aerosol were higher than or equal to corresponding concentrations in conventional cigarette smoke," according to the group's findings, published in March in the online journal PLOS ONE, an international peer-reviewed publication.

Talbot cautions that it is too early to jump to conclusions about whether the metals in the aerosol are harmful.

"It's also possible manufacturers have reduced metal content," Talbot said. "Products are changing rapidly and evolving."

California banned e-cigarette sales to anyone younger than 18 in March 2011, according to an Orange County Health Care Agency fact sheet on e-cigarettes.

At E-Cig City in Laguna Beach, manager Aaron Oberndorf said parents have tried buying e-cigarettes for their kids.

"We refuse service in those cases," Oberndorf said. "We ID everyone."

Jason Shaeffer opened E-Cig City in 2011 and business has been humming, Oberndorf said.

"At first no one knew about e-cigarettes; we would get a customer every couple of hours," Oberndorf said of the early days. "Now [business] is picking up and there's research being done on them."

Customers can customize their e-cigarettes to have little to no nicotine, said Oberndorf, who does not smoke e-cigarettes but lives with someone who does.

"I have customers who were smoking 24 milligrams stop vaping and stop smoking," he said. "They just like the feeling of holding something in their hand."

E-cigarette users frequent the Cliff restaurant, said general manager Andrew Turula.

"There are three or four customers who sit in the bar on Tuesday nights and use [e-cigarettes]," said Turula, who used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and changed to e-cigarettes a couple of months ago. "I still get the nicotine craving, but ... they don't stink."

Turula tried a regular cigarette a few weeks ago and was immediately put off.

"I felt disgusted," he said. "My clothes stunk and my teeth had this film. I don't want to go back" to smoking regular cigarettes, Turula said.

Customers can use e-cigarettes in the Cliff's restaurant, bar and outdoor patio, Turula said.

Someone standing next to another person using an e-cigarette can smell vapors from the flavored liquid, said Oberndorf, who believes the vapors are harmless.

"We know what is in cigarettes, thousands of chemicals," Oberndorf said. "You can go to 0% nicotine [with e-cigarettes]."

But Corbett would say there are too many unknowns about e-cigarettes and that is why she authored the bill.

"SB 648 limits the use of e-cigarettes as they pose unknown health risks in a public space," Corbett said on her government web page. "We must always stand on the side of public health since we still do not yet fully understand the safety of chemicals present in e-cigarette vapors or when nicotine itself leaks from the products. It simply makes sense to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product when they are already prohibited in many public spaces."

The FDA is also working on a proposed rule that would regulate additional categories of tobacco products, but has not yet released details on what products would be included, Haliski said.

"Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated products that turn nicotine, which is highly addictive, and/or other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user," Haliski said. "The FDA intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency's "tobacco product" authorities — which currently only apply to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco — to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of "tobacco product. Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products." 

 [For the record, 5:43 p.m. July 25: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Aaron Oberndorf's name in the cutline]

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