LAKEWOOD — Vaporizers and electronic cigarettes, which have experienced an explosive growth in popularity in the last few years, are beginning to face stiff resistance in Colorado as an increasing number of communities crack down on the battery-powered devices.
Much of the concern about the tobacco-free devices, which use a heating element to vaporize a nicotine-laced liquid solution known as e-juice, stems from the fact that they are relatively new, largely unregulated and the subject of conflicting health claims.
Colorado law limits their sale to those 18 and older, but there are no prohibitions on where they can be used. Louisville started looking at an ordinance after someone was spotted vaping in the city’s library.
The number of users has climbed steadily in the six to seven years since e-cigs first came to the United States. The industry is expected to continue growing by double-digit percentages over the next few years, according to a recently released Wells Fargo research paper, and the study predicts that e-cig consumption could surpass cigarette smoking by 2023.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to finalize a set of rules for e-cigs and vaporizers, but that likely won’t happen until next year.
Device proponents say measures like the ones passed in Edgewater, Lakewood and Fort Collins are misguided and overreaching. They say anti-smoking forces are stirring up a fear campaign that unfairly links the new technology to the age-old dangers of tobacco smoking.
“The only thing they are guilty of is looking like a cigarette,” said Ray Story, CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association. “It is beyond absurd.”
He said that vapor from e-cigs and vaporizers contains only a few basic ingredients — nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine and flavoring. He characterized the mix as “absolutely harmless” to a passer-by breathing it in.
Story said anti-vaping ordinances will only reverse the trend of people turning to the devices as a way to reduce smoking.
“People who have switched to e-cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to tobacco are being treated the exact same way as smokers,” he said. “There’s no smell, there’s no smoke — but they’re being treated the exact same way as tobacco users.”
Edgewater became the first city in the state to put controls on e-cigs and vaporizers by placing them under its smoking ordinance, which bans smoking in indoor workplaces and on patios of bars and restaurants.
“The main thing is they market them to adults as something safe,” said Councilwoman Laura Keegan, who pushed the measure forward in Edgewater. “They market them to children as something safe.”
With e-juice flavors such as bubblegum, butterscotch and grape candy lining retail shelves and available online, Keegan and other critics are worried about a new generation getting hooked on nicotine.
“With broader use of e-cigarettes, which mimic traditional tobacco cigarettes, it norms not just e-cigarette use but traditional tobacco use as well,” said Stephanie Walton, youth policy coodinator for CDPHE.
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Others worry about potential health effects from the vapor the devices emit.
Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, said e-cigs emit volatile organic compounds and a high concentration of ultrafine particles, which can exacerbate respiratory ailments such as asthma.
Studies have found formaldehyde and other toxins in e-cig vapor, though at much lower levels than exist in cigarette smoke.
Sonny DeGuzman, a Thornton resident who has been smoking cigarettes for most of his 68 years, turned to e-cigs last year after he grew tired of waking up with a hacking cough.
“I got up in the morning, wheezing and not being able to breathe, and I said, ‘You’re ruining your health — for what?’ ” said DeGuzman, whose last two packs of cigarettes remain untouched in his fridge. “I like e-cigs — you don’t smell, you don’t stink, it doesn’t cost too much and you’re satisfied.”
He enjoys e-juice flavors like vanilla custard and mother’s milk, and said he has managed to wean himself off nicotine by transitioning to lower concentration doses over time. His e-juice now contains no nicotine, he said. The only reason he vapes at all is out of habit.
Some of the harshest criticism of vaping in public is targeted at the devices’ ability to mask the use of other substances. Because there’s no combustion, the cloud exhaled by the user is often odor-free.
“These are really good drug-delivery devices and they can deliver a variety of drugs,” Doyle said.
With the legalization of marijuana in Colorado in 2012 and the rise of vaping in the state, he said a “perfect storm” has been created for the covert consumption of drugs. Golden Police Chief Bill Kilpatrick warned the City Council about the issue last month during a study session on a potential downtown smoke-free zone.
“You can vaporize cocaine, you can vaporize marijuana, you can vaporize methamphetamine,” he told them. “You do not know what’s in those vaporizers.”
Doyle said he is worried that vaping will spread even faster because the industry is not prohibited from TV advertising, as tobacco has been for nearly 50 years.
“We all want to find ways to help smokers quit, but we don’t know yet what’s going to be the potential harm to the user of e-cigarettes,” he said.
Tim Burgess, who owns the vape shop E Cig of Denver in Lakewood, said ordinances like the one passed by the city last week are tantamount to “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
“The industry has come up with a way for us smokers to get our nicotine without killing ourselves,” Burgess said as he puffed on a vaporizer pen in his back office. “Most of (the opponents) have no clue about how hard it is to quit.”
A better approach, he said, is to let vape users sort it out with those around them rather than having the government impose yet more regulations.
“Let the businesses decide what type of establishment they are and what kind of clientele they have,” Burgess said. “If I walk into your restaurant and you ask me not to vape, I’d honor that.”
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/abuvthefold