A bill moving through the Wisconsin Legislature would allow people to use e-cigarettes indoors where traditional smoking is banned.
E-cigarettes are gaining popularity because they offer a nicotine fix without the cancer-causing effects of tobacco. But so far, the electronic versions are unregulated and health advocates fear the products could put users, and those around them, at risk.
In the past few years, more people have been skirting the state’s indoor smoking ban by “vaping” – that’s the term for dragging on electronic cigarettes.
And if anyone’s confused about whether state law allows the devices in bars and restaurants, Sen. Glenn Grothman says his bill is meant to clear the air.
“We want to make it clear that it is legal to smoke – or vape – with e-cigarettes in a restaurant or a bar or that type of setting. The reason we’re doing it is, a lot of people are quitting smoking by e-cigarettes and it would be a shame if they are deprived of the ability to do that,” Grothman says.
Grothman says he has no concerns about the devices’ safety.
“I could have somebody smoking next to me an e-cigarette all day long and it wouldn’t bother me and it wouldn’t affect my health,” he says.
Health groups and medical professionals take issue with the senator’s assurances.
Maureen Busalacchi is executive director of the organization, Health First Wisconsin. She says there have been no credible studies on the benefits or risks of electronic cigarettes, so politicians should delay action until the FDA acts.
“There’s so much that’s not known about the impact of e-cigarettes, that to say that, they’re absolutely allowed anywhere and everywhere, would potentially be harmful to the public,” Busalacchi says.
Most researchers agree that using the electronic devices is less harmful than traditional smoking. That’s because the battery-powered sticks don’t contain the deadly tar of conventional cigarettes. Instead, the electronic versions convert liquid nicotine into a vapor that users inhale and then puff out into the air.
Busalacchi says it’s unclear what, and how many, harmful chemicals are released with the vapor.
“There’s about 250 companies that sell cartridges and or the liquid and many of them are from out of country, in fact a lot comes from China. So we just don’t know what’s in these. There have been studies that have shown lead, so definitely a concern in terms of what these products are,” Busalacchi says.
“Nicotine is an addicting product and I worry about the effect on children,” says Dipesh Navsaria is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UW Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. He’s alarmed by how some of the new nicotine-delivery products are being marketed.
“I worry here that what we’re doing is we’re actually starting nicotine additions in young children. There’s all sorts of these smoke juice products that are meant to be loaded into these devices that are fruit flavors, candy flavors, gummy bear flavor,” Navsaria says.
Companies deny their sweet-flavored products are designed to lure young people, but more kids are turning to them.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco reported Thursday that middle- and high-school students’ use of e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012. They also say young people who used the devices were more likely to smoke regular cigarettes.
Critics dismiss the connection, saying it’s possible kids and teens who use e-cigarettes were smokers to begin with.
Nevertheless, the products are forcing restaurants and bars in Wisconsin to play referee. Peter Hanson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, says he gets calls from owners wondering how to handle patrons who want to vape.
“They’ll tell me one concern is that other customers from across the dining room see somebody smoking something that looks like a cigarette and then they go and tell management, or they wonder why can’t I smoke if that person over there is smoking?” Hanson says.
Hanson says the association believes state law allows e-cigarettes in public places, but he encourages restaurants to set their own policies.
Grothman's bill is expected to go up for a vote in the Senate Judiciary committee next week.