RICHMOND, Va. – That's not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips' mouth.
But that hasn't stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.
"They're just conditioned if they see you inhale and exhale something, it's got to be smoke and it's going to stink. ... They're not even smelling anything," said Phillips, a 61-year-old retiree and former cigarette smoker from Cuba, Ill.
Electronic cigarettes don't burn and don't give off smoke. But they're at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it's OK to "light up" in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.
Some have clarified that the battery-powered devices don't fall under those bans. Others are retooling smoke-free laws to include them.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered plastic and metal devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge, creating vapor that users inhale. Users call the practice "vaping" rather than smoking. Some e-cigarettes are made to look like a real cigarette with a tiny light on the tip that glows like the real thing.
It's not clear what risks secondhand e-cig vapor holds. It's mostly just water, even though it looks like smoke. The Food and Drug Administration has said its tests found the liquid in some electronic cigarettes contained toxins besides nicotine as well as carcinogens that occur naturally in tobacco. But nobody has studied what onlookers might be inhaling.
Some public health experts say that even for users, the level of those carcinogens was comparable to that found in nicotine replacement therapy like inhalers, because the nicotine in all of the products is extracted from tobacco.
E-cigarettes devotees tout them as a way to break addiction to real cigarettes. They insist the devices address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.
Industry estimates put U.S. sales of the devices and accessories at $200 million to $250 million annually.
But e-cig users are being lumped in with traditional smokers when they want to "vape" and are being asked to not use them in places where smoking is prohibited.
New Jersey is the only state that specifically bans use of e-cigarettes where regular smoking isn't allowed. Some local governments have banned the devices under their smoke-free laws.
However, in Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli wrote an opinion saying that because e-cigs don't burn tobacco, the "vapor emitted by an e-cigarette would not fall within the definition" of the law.
"The whole purpose of a smoking ban is to protect people from secondhand smoke, and there isn't any smoke from an electronic cigarette," Elaine Keller, vice president of Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, an Alabama-based nonprofit that works to ensure the availability of alternatives to smoking. The group says it hasn't received funding from e-cigarette companies.
"Your nose will let you know whether somebody is smoking or not. ... and your eyes will tell you, too, as soon as you get close enough."
Some e-cig users have even taken to "stealth vaping," a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.
Still, the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, a group that has helped states and localities draft laws on smoking bans, includes electronic cigarettes in its model legislation due to the fears over the safety of the devices.
"They raise significant health concerns for us. We don't know what is in the vapor mist, we don't know what else is in the contents of that electronic cigarette," said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. "The good news is more research being done. ... We may learn more, and if in the end they're safe, we'll have to revisit."
But she said that to be allowed in places where regular cigarettes are banned, electronic cigarettes wouldn't just have to be safer; they'd have to "do no harm."
The Food and Drug Administration announced plans in April to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products instead of under stricter rules for drug-delivery devices — news that was considered a victory for makers and distributors of the devices.
Hallett also said because the devices look similar to real cigarettes, it makes it confusing for individuals and more difficult to enforce smoking bans.
"It truly makes no sense," Ray Story, CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association and head of e-cig maker WannaVape, said of e-cigarette bans.
Allowing e-cigs in workplaces also would save millions in productivity from employees not having to take smoke breaks, Story said.
And Keller, who uses her e-cigarette regularly at a northern Virginia bowling alley and other public places, said being able to use it in places where traditional cigarettes aren't allowed is a "powerful incentive to switch to something that can save their life."
After smoking cigarettes for about 45 years, Phillips said electronic cigarettes helped him quit after numerous attempts using nicotine patches and prescription drugs had failed.
"Not one cigarette in almost two years now," he said. "How could you be against that?"
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://twitter.com/mlfelberbaum.