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Should e-cigarettes be welcome in restaurants?

Given that people have such strong feelings about cigarettes, it’s somewhat surprising that restaurant operators are up in the air when it comes to electronic versions.

Many, in fact, are taking a wait-and-see attitude. The Food and Drug Administration is currently drafting regulations for e-cigarettes—among them whether or not to ban their use in public places, including in restaurants and bars. The FDA plans to release their ruling by Oct. 31 of this year, though it could happen later as the release date has been pushed back a couple of times already.

To regulate or not? Other countries have made their views clear. In Hungary, the sale and use of electronic cigarettes is illegal; in Panama, the importation, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes have been prohibited since 2009. This month, the European Parliament is going to vote on a proposal to regulate the devices as if they were medical products.

However, despite legislation in other countries and concerns expressed by the FDA and organizations such as the American Lung Association, many individuals feel regulation is unnecessary. According to a recent online survey conducted by The Kansas City Star, 65 percent of respondents said that electronic cigarettes should not be regulated the way tobacco products are.

To be clear, the FDA defines e-cigarettes this way: “Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals. They turn nicotine, which is highly addictive, and other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user.”

Taking sides. While restaurant operators await the FDAs ruling, others are taking clear sides. Proponents for electronic cigarette use point out that the devices are a smoking cessation aid, better than some others on the market, and a healthier option for smokers than tobacco products. Groups such as the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association and the Independent Association of Electronic Cigarette Users have formed, establishing World Vaping Day (Sept. 19, if you’re curious) and conducting gatherings similar to music festivals, including “Vapestock” and “Vapetoberfest.”

Those against the use of e-cigarettes argue that there isn’t enough known about the effects of use and what chemicals are exhaled, begging the question whether they are safe not only for users, but for anyone inhaling the vapor second hand. They too have formed groups, such as the Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, to rally for their cause.

Watching and waiting. When we reached out to restaurant operators to understand their position, we found that many have not had to deal with the issue yet, let alone establish a policy on use of electronic cigarettes within their operation. Travis Miller, a franchisee of Salad Works in Short Pump, Va., says that he has “often wondered about this new trend. I personally would be opposed to allowing this in our store just given our focus on healthy eating and quality. I know technically it is not supposed to have an impact, but I still would not like to see it [used by] a customer.”

Just as operators are assessing their position on e-cigarettes, the general public is also deciding how they feel about it. CNN recently executed an online poll asking readers where they stand on e-cigarettes in restaurants. As of Oct. 3, one week since the poll started, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they are “fine with it at the table” while 24 percent said “no one should smoke anything, at all, anywhere that food is served” and less than 5 percent voted that “e-cigarette smokers should have their own section.”

With the rise of e-cigarettes sales projected to be $1 billion in 2013—twice that of 2012 sales, according to StatisticBrain.com—while you may not have had to address the issue yet, it may only be a matter of time.

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