First they came for your cigarettes. Now, Columbia could come for your Juuls

The Vapor Girl’s owner shows how e-cigarettes work

Victoria Sylvestre, co-owner of The Vapor Girl, explains how electronic cigarettes create vapor. Sylvestre and her husband Marc own five vapor shops in the Triangle area. Video by Virginia Bridges/ vbridges@newsobserver.com
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Victoria Sylvestre, co-owner of The Vapor Girl, explains how electronic cigarettes create vapor. Sylvestre and her husband Marc own five vapor shops in the Triangle area. Video by Virginia Bridges/ vbridges@newsobserver.com

It’s been more than a decade since you’ve been able to smoke in a Columbia bar or restaurant.

But, well, times have changed, and so has smoking.

With the popularity of electronic cigarettes rising exponentially, Columbia leaders plan to take a new look at the city’s public smoking laws and consider whether to add these nontraditional smoking devices to the city’s workplace smoking ban.

“We’ve got to modernize” Columbia’s smoking laws, said City Councilman Howard Duvall, who recently proposed the city revisit its 13-year-old smoking ordinance. “The things that we’re trying to regulate now weren’t even thought of in 2006. So we’re dealing with a whole new technology of addiction.”

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are small rechargeable devices filled with liquid chemical pods that often are sweet or fruity flavored. When smoked, upon exhaling, they produce a puff of vapor. Smoking these devices, which is commonly called vaping, has grown quickly and wildly popular in recent years.

The devices are seen as an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes, which are widely known to cause cancer and other health problems. E-cigarettes cut out the cancer-causing tobacco, but most are chock-full of addictive nicotine and other chemicals.

The rapid rise in e-cigarettes’ popularity, particularly among American youth, is beginning to lead to more regulation across the United States.

More than 3 million high schoolers smoked e-cigarettes in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and that number has risen by hundreds of thousands each year this decade.

In late 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to severely restrict the sales of e-cigarettes in convenience stores and gas stations across the country, The Washington Post and other media reported.

The FDA has indicated that the move toward limiting sales is driven by the hope of keeping e-cigarettes out of kids’ hands.

Duvall, too, said he is concerned about the number of youth using e-cigarettes.

But Duvall isn’t proposing that Columbia do anything to restrict the sales of e-cigarettes at this point. Rather, he is hoping the city will add e-cigarettes to its law that bans tobacco smoking in workplaces, including bars and restaurants.

“I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to eradicate smoking or vaping, but ... whatever we can do to make it less available, I think it will be worthwhile,” Duvall said.

Columbia’s current ban on smoking in workplaces, which was written in 2006, specifically references the negative health effects of secondhand smoke, which is smoke that is involuntarily breathed by people in the vicinity of someone else smoking a tobacco product.

“When they banned cigarettes, everybody was up in arms and thought they were going to lose business, and it didn’t have any effect at all,” said Marty Dreesen, who owns Bar None in Columbia’s Five Points.

If the city decides to ban e-cigarettes inside workplaces, Dreesen expects the effect will be similarly minimal.

People who vape don’t seem to bother most of his customers to begin with, Dreesen said. If anything, one of the bigger annoyances is “everybody’s always looking for an outlet to charge their vape thing” at the bar, he said.

“I still think there’s probably health issues with it, so that’s always in the back of my mind,” Dreesen said. Regulating e-cigarettes “is probably a dialogue that needs to come about.”

The e-cigarette issue is only just “moving up to a point of prominence on the radar screen” for local hospitality leaders, according to John Durst, the president of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We haven’t taken a position on that so far,” he said.

A handful of states, including California, New York and North Dakota, and hundreds of cities and counties across the U.S. specifically prohibit e-cigarette use in most workplaces, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

Most states do not specifically ban e-cigarette use in workplaces, but more than a dozen states have restrictions on where they can be used; South Carolina is not one of them.

Some local governments in the Palmetto State, including Lexington County and Mount Pleasant, have their own e-cigarette restrictions, according to the Nonsmokers’ Rights organization.