In Bars & Clubs

The vape debate is on. (PHOTO: shutterstock.com)

Should Wisconsin ban e-cigarettes in bars?

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The increased popularity of e-cigarettes – particularly in bars – strikes up a slew of questions about the legality and safety of "vaping," which is the term used when someone inhales and exhales on an e-cig.

Although Wisconsin passed the smoking ban in 2009, e-cigarettes were not included in the legalese, and consequently, vaping in public places remains lawful although at the discretion of business owners.

Vaping, prohibited at Miller Park and Lambeau Field, is tolerated in most local bars.

"I have no problem with it," says Diane Dowland, owner of The Monkey Bar, 1619 S. 1st St. "No one has ever complained about it and sometimes they even smell good."

However, Chris Klein of the American Heart Association says the only reason e-cigarettes were not included in the smoking ban is because they weren't as widely used when the ban passed and that the most important piece of information in the "vape debate" is that the products, which mostly come from overseas, are not regulated by the FDA.

"E-cigarettes are not regulated and manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients, so we don't really know what's in them. It's hard to research something when the company does not have to tell you what's in the product," says Klein.

Kristin Noll-Marsh – founder of The Consumer Advocates For Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA) and the Wisconsin Smoke-Free Alternatives Coalition – says there are fewer chemicals in e-cigarettes than regular cigarettes and it's possible the levels are so low they are not dangerous.

"There are chemicals in everything, including the air we breathe. Fluoride is harmful to our health, but we accept it in toothpaste because it's at a non-harmful level," says Noll-Marsh.

Bronson Frick, the associate director for American Non-Smoking Rights, says that e-cigarettes still emit some chemicals and therefore pose a health risk to the smoker and those around them.

"Even if 'vape' is safer than cigarette smoke, that does not mean it's safer than clean air," says Frick.

For some, e-cigarettes make successful smoking cessation devices. Noll-Marsh says vaping helped her and eight friends and family members quit smoking five years ago.

"I wasn't even intending to quit smoking when I started vaping. I always tell people that I 'accidentally' quit cigarettes," says Noll-Marsh.

Frick says that just because e-cigarettes help some people curb or quit smoking doesn't mean that vaping should be tolerated simply because it is the lesser of two evils.

"Like any smoking device, just take it outside," says Frick.

Klein believes discussion about whether or not e-cigarettes are successful cessation devices and whether or not they should be allowed in public places are two separate conversations.

"These two discussions should not be combined," says Klein. "Someone using an e-cigarette to quit smoking doesn't mean that the people around them need to be involved in the process."

E-cigarettes were invented in 2002 by a Chinese pharmacist and China remains the primary manufacturer of the products, which over the course of a decade have exploded into a $2 billion industry.

There are approximately 500 different e-cigs on the market – from cheap, cigarette-looking versions sold at gas stations to more expensive devices that are often used by more experienced users.

E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco, instead the mechanism heats up a liquid, which turns into vapor and is then inhaled – or "vaped." E-cigs atomize a propylene glycol solution, sometimes called e-liquid, that may include additional flavorings, colorings or variable amounts of nicotine concentrations.

Because e-cigs do not emit smoke, they do not cause eye irritation or a permeating smell like cigarettes. For some, this makes them more acceptable when used in bars or other public spaces.

"I don't see there being a valid argument against (vaping). I understand that e-cigarettes are flavored, not scented, so I can't imagine they'd be offensive," says Paul Jonas, owner of Bay View's Tonic Tavern. "Unless someone's going to say, 'Knock it off dude, I don't like your raspberry breath.'"

Some believe that because e-cigarettes offer flavors like cherry and gummy bear that the products are being marketed toward young people and could be a "gateway" to future tobacco use. Others believe that e-cigarettes are glamorizing smoking.

"There is absolutely no proof that e-cigarette smoking leads to cigarette smoking," says Noll-Marsh. "For many people, it's the other way around: it reduces or eliminates cigarette smoking."

Hartland's Johnson Creek Enterprises, which makes Johnson Creek Smoke Juice, is a Wisconsin-based company that has grown to an $8.5 million business. In 2014, OnMilwaukee.com spoke to Susan Geiger, Johnson Creek's director of communications.

"Traditional cigarettes will always be around, there will always be a market for it, but I think you're going to see in the next five to 10 years a tremendous leap from e-cigarettes being a taboo product or a taboo item to it being mainstream," says Geiger.

So far, some evidence suggests that e-cigarettes may be safer because they don't burn tobacco to create toxic smoke and some tests show the levels of dangerous chemicals released are a fraction of those from a real cigarette; however, others believe there is a huge difference between safe and safer.

"Just because it's not smoke does not mean it's not a threat," says Klein. "We just don't have enough information at this point to determine how harmful e-cigarettes are."

What we do know is that e-cigarettes are relatively new, they are unregulated by the FDA and there are so many studies that both condone and condemn them, that the bottom line of the polarizing issue could be summed up in a line from the 1998 film "The Big Lebowski."

"Well, dude, we just don't know."

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