FORT WORTH — Chris Putnam lights up at his desk several times a day. And, surprisingly enough, nobody seems to care.“We can pretty much do it anywhere we want,” said Putnam, who is allowed to smoke electronic cigarettes while he handles phone and front-counter sales for XL Parts in Fort Worth. By being allowed to use the e-cigarettes inside the workplace, Putnam and his co-workers at the auto parts distribution company who also use the devices say they get more work done. They are commonly known as “vapers.” A pro-vaping policy “helps the company and me,” said Putnam. “To smoke here you have to go completely outside the building, a good 15-minute round trip that you’re not working.”XL Parts may be part of a growing number of employers who still don’t want to see tobacco smoke in the workplace, but who turn a blind eye to e-cigarette vapors, changing policies that often banish employees to the far corners of the property, advocates of smoking alternatives said.Some companies, unlike XL Parts, are reluctant to publicize that they allow vaping, the Star-Telegram found. Many of the 1,200 or so members of North Texas Vapers — an organization that has more than doubled its membership in the last year — have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell-like arrangements with their employers, said Mike Wright, founder of the group.They can use their e-cigarettes in their cubicles or offices “as long as it doesn’t draw negative attention,” he said. “That improves efficiency about 30 percent because they’re not stopping work to get up and go somewhere to vape. But if there are one or two yoyos that want to make smoke signals, it ruins it for everybody.”It’s difficult to tell how many employers are pro-vaping, said Carl V. Phillips, a spokesman for Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association. Unfortunately, there’s “an enormous amount of political pressure to shut down the freedom of e-cigarattes that has nothing to do with anything legitimate,” he said.Stop-smoking aidAn e-cigarette simulates smoking by vaporizing a liquid inserted into the device into an aerosol mist. The vapor produced by e-cigarettes isn’t completely odorless, but the aromas aren’t unpleasant and don’t hang in the air or cling to the users like tobacco smoke.For the vapers, the devices give them the nicotine hit they crave, and they are often used by individuals who are trying to stop smoking. Putnam, for example, is a former cigarette smoker who kicked tobacco by switching to an e-cigarette.Linc Williamsthe director of We Are Vapers , a documentary on the vaping movement, said e-cigarettes help people quit smoking, but don’t encourage anyone to smoke, or vape.“The ASH UK, which is an anti-smoking group in the United Kingdom, did a survey of people and found no evidence to support this gateway argument,” he said.Awareness of the tobacco alternative is growing. According to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent of adult cigarette smokers had tried e-cigarettes in 2010. In 2011, that number grew to 21 percent. A CDC spokesperson said that about 6 percent of all adults surveyed in 2011 had tried e-cigarettes, roughly double the number in 2010.Despite claims that e-cigarrettes are a better alternative, anti-smoking organizations are also anti-vaping.The American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm, the Cancer Action Network, has called on the Food and Drug Administration to regulate e-cigarettes, said spokeswoman Joy Donovan Brandon.“There has been a dramatic increase in use, so there’s a push for the FDA to regulate these products,” Donovan said. “We think people have the right to know what they’re inhaling.”The American Lung Association also is concerned about e-cigarettes “because no one knows what’s in them and what the ultimate impact on our health will be,” said spokeswoman Mary Havel McGinty. “We don’t know what the long-term consequences of the use of electronic cigarettes are, and whether or not it will start kids on a lifelong addiction to nicotine,” McGinty said.Vapers who mix their own or buy liquids from specialized dealers and online sources know what they’re inhaling, Wright said. It is a vaporized solution of water, propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin, food-grade flavoring and nicotine in strengths that typically vary from about 18 milligrams to zero, he said.But many vapers are just as interested in FDA regulation of e-cigarettes, said Spike Babaian, president of the National Vapers Club. The group has concerns about the health of its members who have consumed an unregulated product “and we hope that the FDA will expedite the process of proposing safety regulations for e-cigarettes in the interest of public health,” she said.Secondhand vaporThe perception that the e-cigarettes are at least safer to those who sit around someone who is using them was enough for the new owners of XL Parts, who banned smoking in the warehouse but did allow e-cigarettes to be used by employees at their desks. “We have several people who use them, probably six or eight,” said Cecil Traister, a shop supervisor who has never smoked. “They’re basically odorless.”Junior Del Angel, a vaper who’s on the management team of a Fuzzy’s Taco in Arlington, said he and other vaping employees don’t do it around the food or in the dining area. But his occasional vaping behind the cash register hasn’t upset anyone.“Sometimes people see me do it and they’re curious about the e-cigarette,” he said. “But I explain it to them and they’re OK with it.”So far, the city of Arlington’s OK with it, too, despite the fact that tobacco use is forbidden almost everywhere. The use of e-cigarettes is not prohibited under the city’s smoking ordinance, said spokeswoman Sana Syed.“Since vaping is not prohibited under our current smoking ordinance, it would be left to each property or business owner to set their own policies regarding the use of the product,” she said.Area cities that don’t treat vaping and smoking differently include Fort Worth and Colleyville.The issue of whether to allow or prohibit vaping hasn’t come up in Southlake, said spokeswoman Pilar Schank.Euless also doesn’t have an official policy on vaping. But it imposes a monthly surcharge on health insurance for employees and their spouses who use tobacco products, said spokeswoman Betsy Deck. Tobacco cessation products prescribed by a physician are 100 percent covered by the city, but not e-cigarettes.“With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, electronic cigarettes are no longer considered a viable option for quitting smoking,” she said. “I’m not sure the reason.”But policies and opinions aside, Wright said that clever vapers can do it virtually anywhere with impunity. Because the vapor dissipates so quickly, stealth vaping can be done practically under people’s noses without them being aware.
Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans