Tablet Local

Are e-cigarettes a problem? A council divided

Monte Khader of Arlington used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, but now he uses a battery-operated device to get his nicotine.

“I’m a victim of Philip Morris. I started smoking at 5 years old. I had the crap beat out of me, but I started again at 12 and I’ve been hooked since,” Khader said.

Khader was introduced to his first electronic cigarette, or e-cig, a year and a half ago.

“I took the first drag of it and I was like: ‘I’ll be damned. This tastes like the real thing,’ ” he said.

Khader owns two e-cig stores in Arlington. His first, Luxor Vapors, opened at 1815 E. Abram St. a year ago. He opened another at 4758 Little Road six months later and has plans for two more in other cities.

Still, Khader feels like he’s “sitting on a volcano” waiting for the local or federal government to intervene and regulate the devices.

Local government officials are taking notice of this latest nicotine craze. E-cigs are not federally regulated, and though several states have adopted regulations on the battery-operated devices, Texas hasn’t.

As a result, city leaders say they don’t know enough about the health effects of using e-cigs and they worry that teenagers are being drawn to the colorful, high-tech devices — with their kid-friendly flavors such as bubble gum and cherry — without considering the risks.

Late January, Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon joined community leaders across North Texas who are considering regulating e-cigs. She asked the city staff to present the council with information on what other cities are doing.

“I’m not necessarily making any judgment or decision on it,” Wilemon said. “It is a growing trend, and it looks like there are probably some positive sides to it, but there could be some negative sides, too.”

How they work

E-cigs have been on the market since 2007. They vary in length from 3 to 6 inches and come in a variety of colors from basic white to a bevy of bright hues.

The battery-operated devices have an on-off switch, and a small tank holds “e-cig juice” a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine, varied amounts of nicotine and different flavors, such as imitation watermelon Jolly Rancher and Cinnabon.

A coil heats the juice up when the battery is engaged and a mist is dispersed as the user holds down a small button. The user inhales a stream of vapor.

Someone who used to smoke a pack a day might need 24 milligrams of nicotine at first, Khader said.

Khader mixes his own e-cig juice and said it does not have to contain nicotine. Any ingredient can be omitted, he said.

“This device is intended for rehab purposes and a better alternative to cigarettes,” he said.

There has been speculation that the electronic devises will eventually blow past the sale of regular cigarettes, which is why the the FDA has announced its intent to update its definition of a “tobacco product” to include e-cigs.

If the FDA moves forward, it can regulate the devices, said Stephanie Yao, a spokeswoman for the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

In the meantime, cities and school districts aren’t waiting for the vapor to get into their eyes before taking steps of their own.

Council debate

Cities like Rockwall and Murphy have banned the sale of e-cigs to minors, and Richardson requires special-use permits for e-cig shops.

Mansfield imposed a six-month moratorium on new e-cig shops to investigate the issue.

Fort Worth and Dallas’ smoking ordinances do not include e-cigs, and Frisco council members recently decided that they need more information before they restrict the devices.

The Arlington school district amended its student code of conduct to state that the possession or inhalation of e-cigs during school-related or -sponsored activities on or off campus is a punishable offense.

The Fort Worth district is exploring the issue of e-cigs to see whether a policy is needed, spokesman Clint Bond said.

“We are in a discussion phase,” Bond said, explaining that officials are are reviewing whether a policy would include students and employees.

UT Arlington’s smoking ban also includes e-cigs.

But the Arlington council was split on what to do.

City spokeswoman Sana Syed said that because e-cig stores are retailers, Arlington officials don’t know exactly how many of them are open in the city.

“Unless it’s apparent by their name, we do not know if stores are selling e-cigarettes,” Syed said.

No matter how many there are, Arlington’s smoking ordinance does not cover e-cigs because they do not involve setting tobacco on fire, Roger Venables, assistant director of community development and planning, told the council.

It is up to individual property and business owners to set specific e-cig policies, something that Wilemon found worrisome.

Venables said, “While the proprietors will tell you that they apply the same rules as they do to cigarettes, there is no explicit law that prohibits the sale to minors.”

In asking the city staff for information, Wilemon said the government may not need to be involved.

“We don’t want government doing everything for us, but we do need to be informed,” she said.

Mayor Robert Cluck, a former OB-GYN and vice president of medical affairs at Arlington Memorial Hospital, told council he doesn’t support e-cigs.

“Nicotine is a terribly addictive substance and there is evidence that it by itself can create diseases such as hypertension and heart disease,” Cluck said. “Nobody can really tell you when you smoke [e-cigs] what you take in, and what part of that is damaging. … So I’m not in favor of electronic cigarettes.”

Cluck referred the matter to the city’s Municipal Policy Committee, which is led by Councilman Robert Rivera, who opposes any regulation.

“There has not been citizen outcry to unnecessarily regulate e-cigarettes,” Rivera said. “So I think we should leave the item alone and focus on the other citizen issues.”

Taking a drag

Khader said that when an e-cig user inhales and exhales the fruity vapor, a sweet aroma is emitted instead of the odor produced by cigarettes.

He said some of his customers request e-cig juice sans the nicotine, and he encourages others to decrease their nicotine each month.

Khader said he hopes his store can help people quit smoking and ultimately quit using e-cigs altogether. He said he is not worried about losing his customer base, because if he actually helps people he’ll always have customers.

Khader said that he doesn’t sell to minors and that he turned away a $100 sale the other day because the man didn’t have identification. He said that he’ll continue to support age restrictions but that other regulation is “bogus.”

He says the positives trump everything else.

“I can taste food now. I can smell things,” Khader said. “When you smoke, it messes with your taste, smell and sinuses. Everything was neutral.”

Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report.