FARGO — When Kelsey Eaton tries to explain electronic cigarettes to new customers at Infinite Vapor, she first has to give a lesson in lingo.
“Vaping” is now a verb, referring to the act of inhaling from the battery-powered devices available in all shapes, styles and price ranges; “atomizers” heat the concentrated liquid, available in several flavors and with or without nicotine.
Meanwhile, public health officials are now beginning to wonder if “secondhand vapor” could pose health risks to others.
Even after mastering the vocabulary, e-cig users still need to settle one more issue — how to vape as desired without risking a breach of etiquette, especially as the social norms continue to evolve.
“Mostly, I just tell people to definitely look at the laws in their area and where the legislation’s at,” said Eaton, who has managed Infinite Vapor in downtown Fargo since the store opened last November.
But Bryce Brovitch and Jake Berg, 18-year-old high school seniors in Park Rapids, said the rules of using e-cigs around others depends on more than the latest state and local laws.
Berg prefers to ask permission before using his e-cig in someone’s house or car.
Even though there’s nothing on the books in Minnesota that bans vaping indoors in public places, Brovitch said he usually goes outside so he won’t bother others — or make them think he’s breaking the smoking laws that do apply to regular cigarettes.
“You know that you can’t smoke inside, but it’s not smoking,” he said. “It still kind of looks like it.”
The law, for now
At the federal level, e-cigarettes aren’t classified as tobacco products, meaning the devices and liquid refills don’t have to comply with the same restrictions on advertising, manufacturing or age requirements for purchase or use.
But many states and communities in recent years have passed local laws to deal with the devices, which are growing in popularity and show no sign of slowing down.
A statewide smoke-free law approved by North Dakota voters in 2012 does include electronic cigarettes, Eaton said, which means they can’t be used indoors in public places and are banned from use outdoors within 20 feet of doors, operable windows and air intakes.
Minnesota’s smoke-free law doesn’t include e-cigarettes, and the devices remain legal to use indoors unless a city has passed rules outlawing it.
Keely Ihry, coordinator of the PartnerSHIP 4 Health, which includes health officials from Becker, Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties, said Minnesota requires purchasers of e-cigs to be at least 18. North Dakota doesn’t have that same statewide age requirement.
Fargo and West Fargo both have passed city-level laws that require e-cig purchasers to be 18 or older, and Dilworth and Moorhead have enacted policies that restrict the devices at public schools, she said.
But health officials such as Ihry have their work cut out for them, she said, because the rules are changing, and many are working for more comprehensive statewide and national policies and laws to address the rising influence of e-cigarettes.
“Some people don’t know that they’re not regulated,” she said. “There’s not a lot of information that’s out there at this point.”
Even if e-cigs aren’t technically classified as cigarettes at the federal level, and sometimes don’t contain nicotine, Ihry said public health officials think of them as another regular tobacco product — and believe they should be used in the same manner.
“We would ask that since we don’t know a lot about the vapor that they would be used like a normal cigarette, so they would not be used in indoor public spaces like the bars and restaurants and other general workplaces,” she said.
Another issue, Ihry said, is that children who have grown up in the era of indoor smoking bans could see the act of smoking “renormalized” if they spot adults puffing e-cigs in restaurants and workplaces.
A lot of the rules regarding cigarettes, either formally in the law or the proper usage as agreed to by the broader society, have sprung up because of the secondhand smoke these products produce, Eaton said.
Electronic cigarettes don’t make that same “bad,” “raunchy” smoke, she said, instead emitting a vapor that may leave a light odor in the air.
“It’s just water vapor, and maybe some scent,” she said.
Still, Eaton said Infinite Vapor has tried to stay ahead of the curve by following its own rules that often are stricter than the laws of the communities in North Dakota and Minnesota where it operates its eight stores.
The stores sell only to customers 18 or older, for example, and support calls for the federal Food and Drug Administration to begin regulating the manufacturing of e-cig liquids for consistency and safety.
But the biggest etiquette advice, Eaton said, is to be mindful of others when vaping.
“If I am inside in a different state, and if someone tells me, ‘Hey, that’s bothering me,’ then I don’t do it,” she said. “If it makes people uncomfortable, or if I notice people are uncomfortable, and they’re like, ‘Hey, we don’t want that,’ I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s fine, just let me know.’”