TAMPA — The four men sat at Charley's Steak House, having dinner and puffing away on electronic cigarettes, creating a wafting cloud of smokelike vapor in the dining room.
Only they weren't technically smoking. They were “vaping” (a play on the word “vapor”), and that was perfectly fine with the restaurant managers, at least for a short time. After the Tribune called the restaurant's owners, Charley's set a formal policy against e-cigarettes.
“I would not have thought someone would even elect to use one inside,” said Seth Miller, senior operating partner for Talk of the Town Restaurant Group, which operates Charley's. “Still, it's a vapor, and so I called and spoke to the general manager, and we decided it's not something we're going to allow now.”
Miller wasn't taking a stand on the health aspects of vaping, rather merely trying to balance the interests of many customers versus a few who might want to vape. “My feeling is that if anything can be intrusive on a guest experience, it's not something we're going to recommend in our restaurants.”
E-cigarette rules are like that lately. Restaurants, hotels and malls in the Tampa region have policies all over the map.
An unscientific survey by the Tribune found companies such as Hyatt, Westin, McDonald's and WestShore Plaza mall all have different rules. Some ban e-cigarette use outright. Others permit them. Others haven't made up their minds yet, and some didn't want to take a public position. Cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles are moving to ban them in public spaces. Tampa's main airport allows them, but some airline lounges inside don't.
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Electronic cigarettes don't burn tobacco. Rather they use a small battery and cartridges of nicotine-infused fluid. A small heater vaporizes the fluid, allowing the user to inhale their fix of nicotine, ostensibly without the health risk from burning tobacco. Whereas smoking long has been banned from most public places — in part because of the risks of secondhand smoke — e-cigarettes exist in a regulatory gray area at the moment. Some federal agencies have sought to regulate them as a drug, and some states limit purchases to those 18 or older, but e-cigarette kits are readily available online.
That has helped make vaping a major cultural phenomenon.
E-cigarette makers such as White Cloud and Blu are becoming national brand names and advertise in major magazines. Vaping festivals are starting to pop up across the country, with one formally organized by Vapefest.com. A few cities now have special vaping lounges that cater particularly to the e-cigarette crowd.
The Tampa area has scores of e-cigarette retail outlets. The Lizard Juice brand now has a dozen kiosk or storefront locations from St. Petersburg to Lakeland.
“I'm one week away from one year since I quit smoking,” said Ben Bevilacqua, manager of the new Lizard Juice retail store on West Kennedy Boulevard and a regular e-cigarette user. “I was a one-pack-a-day smoker. I've never felt better. Just the smell of cigarette smoke makes me sick now.”
By far, the most popular e-cigarette setup they sell is the starter kit: Two fluid tanks, a battery, a charger and vaping tube. Price: $45. There's even a USB charging port so users can recharge their e-cig batteries from their computer or in-car charger. E-cigarettes, meanwhile, have evolved beyond the lookalike versions, and many now resemble almost hookahlike pipes.
E-cigarette “juice” from Lizard Juice now comes in a wide variety of flavors: rum punch, spearmint, “Berry Blast,” jolly rancher apple and tiramisu that is “heaven in your mouth,” the brochure reads. “Elegant, creamy Italian custard treat that's not too sweet.”
Hotels, restaurants and other venues have all sorts of attitudes on e-cigarettes.
The new Ducky's sports lounge allows e-cigarette use, but only on the outside open-air deck. WestShore Plaza and International Plaza malls also allow customers to use them inside. But Ciccio's Restaurant Group locations prohibit them, primarily because they don't match the company's healthy living focus, said Matthew Lanza, a partner in the company. Tampa General Hospital and the Boca restaurant also ban them. The Westin hotel on Courtney Campbell Causeway prohibits guests from using them anywhere, and guests could risk a fine for using them in nonsmoking rooms. The Starwood Hotels and Resorts company considers e-cigarettes the same as tobacco cigarettes and prohibits them.
Tampa International Airport bans traditional cigarette use inside but allows — for now — e-cigarette use inside, and airlines such as Delta prohibit them in their first-class lounges.
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Several venues fall somewhere between “yes” and “no.”
McDonald's formally has no policy on customers using e-cigarettes in their company-owned locations and leaves the decision up to individual franchise operators. Hyatt Hotels Corp. has no policy on e-cigarette use in lobbies or rooms. Bern's Steak House officials formally gave a “no comment” on the whole topic.
The Marriott Waterside has no corporate directive yet. “I've walked through the lobby before and seen a table of guys using them,” General Manager Ron McAnaugh said. “There was a huge white poof, then it was gone. ... It's good that they weren't smoking, but if you put 10 of them together it can be something.”
In theory, he said, a guest could risk a $250 “recovery fee” for leaving an e-cigarette odor in a room.
Soon, the decision may be taken out of their hands altogether. Los Angeles last week passed restrictions on e-cigarette use in public places, joining Chicago, Boston and New York City. Tampa so far has no formal policy or city code on e-cigarette use.
A bill is moving quickly through the Florida Senate that would ban any store from selling e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 18.
Meanwhile, many e-cigarette makers promote them in part as a healthier alternative to tobacco use. The Food and Drug Administration has other opinions. “They turn chemicals, including highly addictive nicotine, into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user,” the FDA states on its public education website about e-cigarettes. “E-cigarettes have not been fully studied so consumers currently don't know: The potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products.”
By way of warning would-be vapers, the FDA recently posted hundreds of reports from individuals suffering reactions to e-cigarettes. Among the problems: pneumonia, congestive heart failure, disorientation and seizures.