The man and his two friends were sitting in a restaurant, puffing away on their cigarettes, with no concern about their actions.
No, they were not breaking the law. In fact, there are few if any laws that cover the kind of cigarettes they were smoking.
They were using electronic cigarettes, a fairly new and growing phenomenon that is a safe recreational substitute for smoking, an aide for those trying to quit smoking, a drug delivery system just as bad for the health as cigarettes, or all of the above, depending on who one it talking to.
“The thing was, no one said anything to us,” said the man, who wished to remain anonymous, in a St. Charles coffee shop Friday. “I used one all the time for about six months after I quit smoking. I used it everywhere, and nobody ever said anything.”
But there are places where they will say something. For instance, in that very coffee shop in St. Charles, a Starbucks, an e-cigarette would not be welcome. Starbucks has a policy against their use inside their stores.
But the rules for e-cigarettes are not always so cut and dried.
“We don’t have any formal policy on it,” said John Lapinski, DuPage County Court administrator.
He said the only time it ever came up was in the jury room, where a prospective juror used one. Lapinski said court officials made their “policy’ on the spot.
“We don’t allow smokers to take a break, so, as a matter of fairness, we ask them not to use e-cigarettes, either,” he said.
Officials in Naperville reported the issue has never come up or been discussed pertaining to the Municipal Center. Similarly, the Naperville Library’s three locations don’t have a serious issue with e-smoking. Julie Rothenfluh, executive director, said the board probably would expand the tobacco ban to the surrogate smokes if they did become problematic.
In Naperville’s schools, no smoking means no smoking — even when there’s no smoke.
North Central College has expanded its prohibition on smoking inside or within 15 feet of any door or window to apply to electronic cigarettes as well. And Districts 203 and 204 have a no-tolerance rule covering all forms of cigarettes.
“The school administration is authorized to discipline students for gross disobedience or misconduct, including but not limited to using, possessing, distributing, purchasing, or selling tobacco materials or electronic cigarettes,” the policy manual for Indian Prairie District 204 states.
In Naperville District 203 schools, “e-cigarettes have had a minimal presence on school grounds,” spokeswoman Susan Rice said in an email. The board of education reviews its policies in response to changes in the law or other conditions, Rice said, but there is no indication that officials need to revisit the rules right now.
It’s not unusual to see a lack of policy among some groups regarding the e-cigarettes in public spaces, because no one is sure just what they are, or whether they pose any danger to anyone. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declines to regulate the devices, because they have not done enough study on them yet.
The FDA tried to regulate e-cigarettes as a drug delivery system, similar to other smoking cessation devices. But the federal courts struck that down, so there is, in effect, no federal regulation of them at this time.
But individual states do have some regulation. Illinois does not regulate e-cigarettes, except to ban selling them to people under the age of 18. Gov. Pat Quinn signed that law in August, and it will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.
E-cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes. Many look more or less like long cigarettes, others look like cigars or pipes. They all work the same basic way:
The user inhales through a mouthpiece.
Air flow triggers a sensor that switches on a small, battery-powered heater. The heater vaporizes liquid nicotine in a small cartridge. Users can opt for a cartridge without nicotine.
The heater also vaporizes propylene glycol in the cartridge, which creates the vapor or the fake smoke.
E-cigarettes contain no tobacco products. Even the nicotine is synthetic. The devices sell for $100 to $200. Refill cartridge packs vary in price depending on nicotine content, and liquid for do-it-yourself refills are sold, too.
The debate on where and how e-cigarettes should be used likely will continue, in many different ways. Fancy restaurants in New York are talking about banning e-cigarettes, not because of any danger, but because some restaurant owners think they look tacky.
But tobacco companies are hedging on the fact that they eventually will replace their product. Big tobacco companies are developing their own e-cigarette products, the largest being Lorillard, which acquired blu e-cigs in 2012 and now controls around 40 percent of the market.
Sun-Times Media staff writer Susan Frick Carlman contributed.