E-cigarettes pose curious challenges for restaurants and bars, while researchers continue to debate their effects. (Shutterstock image / October 9, 2013)

Restaurants don't know what to do about them. Critics claim they're “peddling addiction” to kids. Defenders say they're anti-cancer. Lawmakers in this state can't decide if they're good, or bad, or both, while officials in 40 states (including Connecticut) are demanding federal regulation.

“E-cigarettes,” with the “E” standing for electronic, are the ignition source for this confusion conflagration. “Vapers” (as the people who puff on them like to call themselves) use these nicotine-producing devices to get the same mild buzz that traditional smokers enjoy, but without the smoke.

And the numbers of vapers in Connecticut and across the nation are exploding.

Connecticut's very first e-cigarette shop opened in Branford just over a year ago. “It took off like wildfire,” says Ted Szabo, one of the owners of E-Six Vapors.

Szabo says another half-dozen e-cigarette operations have opened around the state since then. “It's getting real popular,” he adds.

That's a monumental understatement.

Electronic cigarettes are forecast to do $1.7 billion in U.S. sales this year, according to the New York Times. The newspaper also reported that advertising (including TV ads) for e-cigarettes jumped from $2.7 million in 2010 to $20.8 million last year.

They can be purchased on the Internet, and, unlike traditional cigarettes, kids under age 18 can buy them legally in many states — including this one.

The fact that e-cig makers are offering stuff like bubblegum- and fruit-flavored nicotine combos has led to outraged accusations that they're targeting kids to get them hooked. You can buy a disposable e-cigarette for less than $3.

Szabo insists that selling sweetened e-cigs isn't intended to hook children; he argues it's no different from a liquor store selling flavored vodkas. “I don't think just because we have sweet flavors, that's going to draw kids in,” he says. He adds that his store refuses to sell to anyone under 18, even though that's not against the law as yet, and that he would be OK with legislation prohibiting sales to minors.

There seems to be general agreement that e-cigs produce fewer cancer-causing substances like tar than regular cigarettes, and don't offer bystanders the major risks associated with second-hand smoke.

These battery-powered devices are charged up with a nicotine liquid called “juice” (the non-disposable babies are refillable), which is turned into a vapor that's inhaled by the user. Often, one end of the e-cigarette stick will glow when it's being puffed, just like a real cigarette.

The juice ingredients include a nicotine concentrate (usually derived from natural tobacco leaves), some sort of flavoring (it can even be tobacco flavor, since the concentrated nicotine doesn't usually have any tobacco flavor left), and something to dilute the liquid. One of the concerns voiced about e-cigs is that some chemicals involved in these ingredients could be harmful.

No smoke means that lots of vapers can puff away inside locations where it's now illegal to smoke traditional cigarettes. Some Connecticut restaurants and bars (like Archie Moore's in New Haven) won't allow the use of e-cigarettes. Others (like Tisane Euro Asian Cafe in Hartford) are taking a more relaxed attitude, allowing e-cigs as long as it isn't bothering other customers.

“If you're discreet, no one will know you're doing it,” Szabo points out. Szabo says some e-cig users like to take deep drags and then exhale a lot of vapor, which can be visible and make people think you're actually breaking no-smoking regulations.

In some places, vapers have come up with an easy way to signal waiters and bartenders that they're using e-cigs: they turn their device around and touch the glowing end to their foreheads.

Various studies have come up with conflicting results about how hazardous e-cigarettes may be to the people puffing on them. Some research indicates people are inhaling potentially nasty chemicals; but a study paid for by the e-cigarette industry lobby found levels of that bad stuff to be too low to be dangerous.

“There's no conclusive evidence to say this is bad for you,” insists Szabo. He points out that none of the studies to date have come up with conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes “are directly linked to cancer.”

Szabo says all the ingredients for his “juice” are U.S.-made. He says some of the problems may come from cheap e-cigarettes that use nicotine “juice” from China. “I'd be worried about putting that stuff in my body,” he adds, proudly noting that E-Six makes its own nicotine liquids and that they only sell “very, very clean juice.”

Those sorts of arguments haven't stopped health advocates from trashing e-cigarettes and warning about their potential health risks. The British Medical Association and the World Health Organization among others have raised concerns about e-cigarettes.