Late Wednesday morning, Rob Steele strolled through the Valley Sports Bar with a cigarette tucked behind his ear.
Stopping at a table, he pulls out the cigarette, takes one or two puffs before sliding it back into place. There is no smoke, no smell and no ashes. No one in the bar even seems to notice.
Steele has joined the growing number of South Dakota smokers who have turned to electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes in order to abide by the new smoking ban.
“It’s a good substitute, but it’s not quite the same,” said Steele, kitchen manager at Valley Sports Bar in Rapid Valley.
E-cigarettes are essentially small, battery-operated heating elements combined with a nicotine cartridge and an atomizer. When the person draws on the e-cigarette, the atomizer converts the nicotine in the cartridge into vapor. The nicotine-laced vapor is then inhaled into the lungs. When the person exhales, only odorless vapor is expelled.
The cigarettes are advertised as a way to get a nicotine fix without the smoke, smell and mess. Steele said the brand Valley Sports Bar sells, Green Smart Living, costs $10 a box for five nicotine cartridges. Each cartridge is the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes or 300 puffs, according to the Green Smart website.
Most e-cigarettes are designed to look like an actual cigarette, complete with a LED light that lights up whenever the smoker inhales. Some, however, are designed to look like pens or other objects.
E-cigarettes have been on the market for several years but have really taken off as more states have gone smoke-free. Last year, South Dakota did just that, outlawing smoking in all public places.
Since then, local bar owners have seen more people utilizing the smokeless product.
Pat Larsen, manager of Valley Sports Bar, said he has sold quite a few of the e-cigarettes and sees a fair number of people using them in his bar.
“We’ve had good response to them,” he said.
Larsen has also noticed employees from such businesses as Rapid City Regional Hospital purchasing the e-cigarettes in order to comply with no-smoking policies at the work place.
Tracy Island of Deadwood Gulch Resort is surprised she hasn’t sold more of the e-cigarettes but sees patrons on occasion using them.
Eric Brekke, sales coordinator at Deadwood Gulch, is a smoker and has begun to regularly use e-cigarettes while at work or in public places. Although he isn’t trying to quit, he thinks the e-cigarettes are a great alternative.
“It will get me 8 to 10 hours stuck in an airport without wanting to hurt anybody,” he said with a laugh.
Supporters of the e-cigarettes argue that they contain fewer chemicals than a tobacco cigarette, especially carcinogens. Tobacco cigarettes contain 4,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known carcinogens, according to Dr. Allen Nord, a Rapid City physician and an outspoken proponent of the smoking ban.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported in 2009 that tests showed that e-cigarettes do more than deliver nicotine to consumers. The FDA alleges they also deliver plenty of chemicals, including an ingredient used in antifreeze.
In September 2010, the FDA also announced it had taken action against five e-cigarette companies for poor manufacturing practices and unsubstantiated claims. The agency argued that the e-cigarettes can increase nicotine addiction and more studies are needed to prove safety.
Nord said e-cigarettes may be safer than tobacco cigarettes due to the decrease of many of the carcinogens, but they won’t help with nicotine addiction issues.
“Nicotine is so outrageously addictive. It’s not a bad habit, it’s a drug addiction,” he said.
Nicotine affects the human brain in the same way methamphetamine does, Nord said.
For that reason, it would be a terrible idea for a nonsmoker to take up e-smoking, he said. They could still become addicted. But a smoker who uses the e-cigarette to reduce their own smoking habits could benefit in the same way they would benefit from nicotine gum or a nicotine patch.
“I would say it’s a step toward total abstinence from nicotine,” Nord said.
While the e-cigarette doesn’t have the same carcinogens as regular cigarettes, thus reducing lung cancer risks, nicotine carries its own risks. Nicotine is a vaso-constrictor, which means it narrows the opening of blood vessels. Such constriction can negatively affect the heart, he said.
“For smokers, especially heavy smokers, this represents an escape route,” Nord said. “For people are who not smokers, it’s a terrible idea.”
Steele, who has smoked for 15 years, isn’t interested in quitting, but the e-cigarette option has changed his smoking habits. He went from a two-pack-a-day habit to half a pack a day.
It also made life easier at home. Father to a two-week-old baby boy, Steele doesn’t smoke regular cigarettes around his son.
“I don’t smoke regular cigarettes in the house anymore,” he said.
He said the e-cigarette actually helped his son’s mother while she was in the hospital having the baby. She was able to smoke the e-cigarette in her room and avoid nicotine cravings.
He thinks the e-cigarette also makes him more productive at work. Instead of going outside for his smoke break and leaving the kitchen, he can stay busy at work with the e-cigarette. “I can smoke and still supervise the casino at the same time I take my smoke break,” he said.
That said, Steele admits that there’s still something about smoking a tobacco cigarette. The routine of pulling the cigarette from the pack and lighting it remains a habit that’s hard to break.
“When it’s nice outside, I still like to step outside and have a regular cigarette,” he said.
By Lynn Taylor Rick: 394-8414, [email protected]