No Butts About It

Michelle Sullivan

Open the door to the corner brick building at High and Mithoff streets on the South Side, and you're hit with the overwhelming scent of a candle shop-a candle shop that also sells cigars. Billowing clouds of what appears to be smoke hang in the air, but just one sniff confirms the thick white puffs are not smoke-they're vapor. And Vapor Station doesn't sell candles or cigars. Just electronic cigarettes and flavorful liquids that fill them, producing a telltale smoke-like illusion when exhaled.

On a midweek afternoon, the tiny store is crowded with half a dozen customers and as many employees, most of whom are former cigarette smokers. They chat as they vape, drawing on a battery-operated device that boils liquid into vapor when inhaled. They sample an array of aromatic e-liquids-or juice, as vapers call it. Unlike traditional combustible cigarettes, e-cigarettes come with countless flavor options-sweet strawberry, vanilla chai, bubble gum, even tobacco and menthol. Advocates say they also deliver a dose of nicotine to the lungs without the side effects of tobacco that have been proven harmful.

With the exception of a statewide law approved by Gov. John Kasich in March banning their sale to minors, e-cigarettes are virtually unregulated in Ohio. They can be sold anywhere, including online, and they aren't subject to the same tax or license guidelines as tobacco products. Though vaping looks an awful lot like smoking, it's allowed in most parks, bars, restaurants and workplaces in Columbus. All of that could change, though, with additional legislation. Los Angeles and New York, for instance, have established citywide regulations on where e-cigarettes can be used.

State Rep. Stephanie Kunze says there doesn't seem to be any legislative interest in further restrictions, such as adding e-cigarettes to the current smoking ban. Kunze sponsored House Bill 144, which classified e-cigarettes as alternative nicotine products and included them in the existing age restriction for cigarettes and other tobacco products. It is now a fourth-degree misdemeanor to sell or distribute e-cigarettes or e-liquids to anyone under the age of 18.

While the Ohio Department of Health does not have an official position on e-cigarettes, the department is encouraging businesses and institutions to prohibit their use, says Mandy Burkett, chief of the department's tobacco and indoor environment section. Ohio State University, for example, includes e-cigarettes in the campuswide ban on the indoor and outdoor use of tobacco products. "There is not enough of an evidence base to show that the use of e-cigarettes is safe," Burkett says.

Until there is more data on the health implications of e-cigarettes, it's unlikely we'll see much more regulation. "There's a lot we need to understand before we make blanket statements," says Liz Klein, an assistant professor in the Ohio State College of Public Health. "It does appear, based on the lack of combustion, that the vapor is likely to be safer than the smoke generated from a combustible cigarette. But there's a big space between, 'It's safer,' and, 'It's safe.' "

Columbus City Council has not introduced any legislation related to e-cigarettes and has instead taken a wait-and-see approach.

"We will continue to monitor progress of statewide regulation in the Statehouse and see how it may affect Columbus," says John Ivanic, communications director for city council. "As always, we will work to guarantee the health and safety of residents at a local level."

Upper Arlington has introduced its own legislation which mirrors the state's. Vice mayor Debbie Johnson doesn't see a push for additional regulations. "Our legislation takes care of it now as far getting in the hands of minors," she says.

Johnson introduced to Upper Arlington City Council early in 2014 an ordinance similar to the state bill, and it passed unanimously. While cities can't adopt laws that are less restrictive than the state's, they can make them more restrictive, which is what Upper Arlington did with theirs, says Thad Boggs, assistant city attorney for Upper Arlington. In addition to the minimum age of purchase, the law also restricts where e-cigarettes can be sold. In Central Ohio, e-cigarettes are sold in roughly a dozen vapor shops, most tobacco smoke shops and on the shelves of retailers like gas stations and convenience stores. But in Upper Arlington, they can be sold only from behind a counter.

"The state's law does not have that," Boggs says. "For conventional cigarettes, those regulations come down through the FDA," which does not regulate e-cigarette products.

Vapor Station's business won't be affected by the Ohio age restriction when it takes effect later this year, owner James Jarvis says. Since he opened his South Side location and another in Gahanna, he hasn't allowed minors unaccompanied by a parent or guardian to enter anyway. Signs on his storefronts say as much. He turns away a handful of kids each month, he says, and has even refused customers he thought were buying products for children.

"We don't want to start a habit," he says. "We want to stop a habit." Although e-cigarettes are not an FDA-approved smoking-cessation method like nicotine patches or gum, they are commonly used by cigarette smokers trying to quit. E-liquids vary in nicotine concentration from more than what's in a pack of cigarettes to no nicotine at all. The staggered levels help smokers wean off nicotine, Jarvis says.

"What we tell people is e-cigarettes have not been approved as a cessation device, and we recommend people use evidence-based cessation strategies," says Burkett, of the state health department.

Manufacturers are not required to disclose the concentration of nicotine in e-liquids, but Jarvis does. It's partly because he thinks it'll eventually become mandatory, but also "to make sure we're giving the most accurate information possible."

As for what legislation might lay on the horizon, Jarvis isn't worried. If the city or state restricts where they can be sold or used, it'll only drive more customers to his store. If he's required to obtain a certain license to sell them, "we'll just get the proper license." (The cost of retail cigarette dealer's license in Ohio is $125 a year.)

Taxes, though, are something he is concerned about. At one point, he organized an online petition to "tell people to contact their local congressmen and tell them they're against taxing e-cigarettes any differently." Though there's nothing on the docket yet, "how they're taxed in the future will play a large part," he says.