Cities in McLennan County are following national trends to ban smoking or “vaping” electronic cigarettes in public places as legislators try to catch up with an industry that is providing smokers new ways to inhale nicotine without tobacco.

Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and the Texas cities of Socorro, near El Paso, and Frisco are some that have banned using e-cigarettes in public places. Hewitt and Woodway could soon follow suit.

Woodway is ridding its city campuses of any tobacco products, and that includes electronic cigarettes or “vaporizers,” City Manager Yost Zakhary said.

Zakhary said the city stopped hiring tobacco users in mid-February and all its campuses will become tobacco-free Tuesday.

The city hasn’t changed its ordinance for private entities yet, such as restaurants, to include e-cigarettes, but Zakhary said his recommendation is that the Woodway City Council do so.

“We see electronic cigarettes (as being) the same thing as cigarettes,” he said.

An electronic cigarette is a cigarette substitute that vaporizes flavored nicotine-infused “juice” to be inhaled. Smokers don’t exhale smoke, which electronic cigarette companies claim makes the vaporizers safer and more socially acceptable.

The juice traditionally is made from artificial flavors, vegetable oil, propylene glycol and nicotine.

Hewitt Police Chief Jim Devlin said he’s open to expanding the nonsmoking ordinance to include e-cigarettes, but is more concerned about keeping them from minors.

“There is no state law that prohibits the sale or possession to persons under 18 years of age,” he said.

Devlin plans to recommend to the Hewitt City Council on April 7 an ordinance banning minors from buying or using e-cigarettes.

Devlin began investigating the vaporizers at the beginning of the year when he received complaints of minors using them. He said there is juice without nicotine, but police can’t tell the difference unless the packaging is there.

“I’m kind of getting word from some citizens that their kids are running across it,” he said. “I think the overriding fear is that if it does get in the hands of minors there will be some kind of abuse.”

Nicotine ban

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District also looks to encourage tobacco-free and nicotine-free living through banning those products on its campus. Starting May 1, all nicotine products will be prohibited, including electronic cigarettes.

“There’s not a lot of clear-cut answers on whether or not it helps people quit smoking or if there are any other underlying health conditions that could be (worsened) by that,” health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said. “At the health district, we feel that nicotine is unhealthy. It is unhealthy. It’s a poison.”

Craine said the juice isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the vaporizers are not marketed as smoking cessation tools. They’re marketed as a new type of vice, providing the same nicotine addiction as cigarettes.

“They’re not presenting this as a tool to help you stop smoking. It’s being presented in a way as a tool where you can smoke in restaurants or bars,” she said.

Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the Waco City Council hasn’t discussed expanding its nonsmoking ordinances to include e-cigarettes, but is open to examining anything brought to the meetings.

Vaporizer users

Vaporizer users see them as the lesser of two evils.

Amir Surani, owner of Bosque Smoke Shop on Sunset Street in Waco, said normal cigarettes have hundreds of harmful chemicals in them, but the juice often only has four ingredients.

Surani makes juice in his shop and provides different nicotine levels and 160 different flavors, depending on what customers request.

Surani said at least 500 of his customers — 50 percent of his business — have switched to vaporizers and are completely off cigarettes.

He said he agrees with public ordinances prohibiting vaporizers in public places.

He said children don’t know the difference between an electronic cigarette and a real one and seeing someone smoke a vaporizer in public could convince them regular cigarettes are OK.

Waco resident Ronnie Aletky, 35, said he began smoking when he was 13 and successfully quit cigarettes October 2013 with the help of vaporizers.

Aletky said he had tried e-cigarettes a few times before, but the technology wasn’t advanced enough and they didn’t work well.

Aletky said he doesn’t mind if restaurants or public places ban vaporizers because he tries to be discreet about using it anyway.

“Sometimes I’ll step outside and use it,” he said. “If I’m in a crowded place or restaurant I won’t use it just out of consideration for other people.”

Aletky said he also has dropped from using 36-milligrams-per-milliliter liquid to half that nicotine concentration.

“I find that I don’t actually use the vaporizer as often as I used to use cigarettes,” he said.