The Baltimore City Council is poised to ban electronic cigarette "vaping" from nearly everywhere that traditional cigarette smoking is prohibited.
The legislation has support from public health officials, who call it a prudent step in regulating an emerging industry. But it's being criticized by those who use e-cigarettes and say the devices aren't actually cigarettes at all — and therefore shouldn't be treated as such.
"There's no smoke. It's just sugar water vapor," says Adam Fordham, owner of The Vapory in midtown Baltimore. "There are no known ill health effects to the user or someone next to them."
The measure is expected to win preliminary approval from the City Council Monday.
Baltimore is among cities and states across the country that are grappling with how to regulate "vaping," a term that refers to electronic cigarettes and vaporizers that allow users to breathe in nicotine without inhaling other harmful substances in traditional cigarettes, such as tar.
Months ago, Maryland lawmakers struck down an effort to ban electronic cigarette smoking statewide from all places where cigarette smoking is banned. But legislation introduced by City Councilman James B. Kraft would do just that in Baltimore.
"This is the wild, wild west. There have not been any real studies on these things nationwide," Kraft says. "I decided we really needed to act and get these things under control. It's needed for consistency with regards to enforcement of smoking laws."
His bill contains a significant amendment that allows bars and restaurants to opt out of the ban, if they post prominent signs on their entrances and menus informing potential customers. Under the legislation, e-cigarettes would still be banned completely from inside any other city business, except those where vaping is the primary source of commerce. They would also be banned from playgrounds.
Maryland has prohibited the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, but placed no restrictions on whether the devices can be smoked indoors. Twenty-six other states have also banned sales to minors, according to Maryland General Assembly researchers, while Boston, New York City, New Jersey and Utah have banned the devices in public places.
Even so, the industry has seen constant growth. The Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association says there are about 3,000 vaping stores nationwide. A Wells Fargo Securities analyst estimates e-cigarette sales approached $1.7 billion in 2013, more than doubling 2012 levels.
At The Vapory, regulars lounge on couches, surrounded by art, puffing on flavors that include Persian Winter, honeysuckle and pear. Fordham, dressed in a bow tie and vest, calls vaping "sophisticated."
E-cigarette smokers like Fordham are leery of the government intervention. They say vaping helps chronic smokers quit and poses no public health threat.
At the center of the issue is a debate over perception and the lack of conclusive scientific evidence. Because many perceive vaping to be functionally the same as smoking, they want it to be regulated as such. Kraft's bill, for instance, arose from an incident on opening day at Camden Yards this year, when his granddaughter asked him why people puffing on e-cigarettes were allowed to smoke. His legislation generated letters from around the state in favor and against the ban.
But there are also concerns from health experts, because studies have yielded mixed results about e-cigarettes.
A study from the University of California, San Francisco found South Korean teens who tried to quit smoking are "more likely to use e-cigarettes but less likely to no longer smoke, which suggests that e-cigarettes inhibit rather than promote cessation."
But another study, published in The Lancet and funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, concluded that e-cigarettes work about as well as nicotine patches in helping smokers stop. Both are "modestly effective," it said.
Given the lack of conclusive findings, some public health officials are urging lawmakers to take caution and give vaping no more leeway than smoking.
Pamela Clark, a professor at the University of Maryland's school of public health, said the chemicals used to create flavored vapors are burned at such a high temperature that it fundamentally changes their chemistry.
"Since everything else is up in the air, the only thing we can recommend is treat them like regular cigarettes," she said. But Clark acknowledges vaping is likely less harmful than smoking.
"It's better than smoking cigarettes," she said. "It's got to be better than that. But we don't know what the better is."
In a letter endorsing the legislation, Baltimore City Interim Health Commissioner Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey cited national statistics that e-cigarette use increased among middle school and high school students from 2011 to 2012. Use increased from 0.6 percent of middle schoolers to 1.1 percent, he said, and from 1.5 percent of high schoolers to 2.8 percent.
"This has started to increase the number of kids who begin smoking," Kraft said. "There is no requirement that one be licensed or one have any training whatsoever in order to do this."
Kraft said he rejects using the term "vaping" to refer to e-cigarettes, because he believes it's designed to disassociate the electronic devices from cigarettes.
"They ask us to call it vaping, and we will not do that," he said.
When Fordham opened The Vapory in 2013, he says, there were only seven such shops in the state. He estimates there are 50 to 60 now.
"Let's be happy that people are quitting smoking," he said.
At his store last week discussing the ban were Craig Phipps, 48, and Robert Foster, 20, who both say vaping helped them quit smoking.
"I don't see why the government should get involved with it," said Phipps, a Mount Vernon resident, as he puffed on an e-cigarette. "It should be up to the individual businesses to decide."
Foster, who works nearby as a cook, said e-cigarette smokers who are showy and blow big amounts of vapor in public give others a bad name.
"When I'm in public places, I try to make it very subtle," he said. "I love using it. I think it's a great alternative to cigarettes. I wish everyone in my family who chain smokes would start vaping."
Volker Stewart, co-owner of The Brewer's Art, said he believes business owners should get to choose whether or not to allow vaping.
"We're not big fans," Stewart said, adding that he doesn't permit e-cigarettes to be smoked inside his bar. "People have become accustomed to going outside to smoke, just out of common courtesy. If an establishment chooses to be a vape-friendly environment, that's up to them."