A county health worker said Thursday he apologized in person to two business owners for suggesting that use of electronic cigarettes in their “vapor” stores was probably against Montana law.
The owner of the new Vaping Outlet store, 3703 Harrison Ave., said county Tobacco Prevention Specialist Frank Rozan did more than question its legality, he shouted, “You can’t do that in here!” when a customer took a drag from an e-cigarette in the store and blew out the vapor.
Regardless of what happened Monday or what Rozan or store owner Phillip Lish said about it, one thing is clear: using e-cigarettes indoors is not against Montana law.
Rozan said he found that out when he checked with state health officials on Wednesday and went to Lish’s store and another and apologized for suggesting otherwise.
“I’m not a crusader and I told them I was very sorry and I made a mistake,” Rozan said.
E-cigarettes are typically battery-powered devices that simulate cigarette smoking. A heating element vaporizes a liquid that often contains a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and flavorings.
Some liquids contain nicotine and some do not and the risks or benefits of using e-cigarettes are uncertain and still being debated, something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration acknowledges.
Makers and sellers of the products often claim, however, that they are a healthier alternative to cigarettes.
County Chief Executive Matt Vincent referred to the incidents involving Rozan at the end of Wednesday night’s council meeting, saying county officials had gotten a “number of calls” about them in the past couple of hours.
He said the businesses in question would be contacted and told that use of the products indoors is not an issue “until such time as the Montana Legislature addresses those items.”
County Health Director Karen Sullivan noted Thursday it is unlawful to smoke regular cigarettes inside public buildings in Butte, as well as restaurants and bars.
Rozan’s job is to educate the community about the dangers of smoking and using tobacco and the laws and regulations about that. The department has another employee who enforces the law through citations and sometimes they visit places together, Sullivan said.
“While Frank was trying to do his job he was on a bit of shaky ground law-wise and we know the owner out at Tamarack Square (Lish) is trying to run a business and we respond to that and we work with that,” Sullivan said.
She said the county is trying to reduce smoking rates and smokeless tobacco use and Rozan plays a key role in that. But the use of e-cigarettes was still “uncharted waters” and the department needs more information and possibly guidance from federal or state officials before setting a course on them here.
Lish opened Butte store in June to go along with similar stores in Idaho – one in Pocatello and one in Idaho Falls. The stores offer e-cigarette devices, batteries and more than 50 liquid flavors, some with nicotine and some without.
A sign on the front glass door says products will not be sold to anyone under age 18.
Lish said two customers were inside his store Monday and he was explaining the products and how to use them when Rozan came in.
“He says, ‘You can’t do that in here,’ and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, yes you can, you’re vaping, it’s just vapor,’” Lish said. “I said, ‘It’s perfectly legal,’ and he said, ‘No it’s not, it’s a violation of the Montanan Indoor Clean Air Act.’”
He said Rozan then got into a discussion with the customers until they eventually walked out, with one telling Lish “good luck.”
Lish’s wife, Shauna, said they visited several communities in southwestern Montana before choosing Butte for their third store.
“The people have just been really friendly,” she said.
Rozan said there was only one customer in the store and he told that person, when he was about to drag on the e-cigarette, “I don’t think you can do that in here.”
He said the customer “went off” and said he had done it inside stores in Billings and at airports and elsewhere. He said Lish told him, ‘I brought my business to this (expletive) town and you’re trying to shut me down.’”
Rozan said he is about “as liberal as they come,” and not a barnstormer and would never go into any business and threaten to shut it down.
“I’m not going to get into a big ‘he said, she said,’” Rozan said. “I sincerely apologized to him. I was just doing what I thought I should do.”
Lish said he posted accounts of the incident on Facebook and the Internet, and Rozan said he has since gotten numerous emails about it, including some from Connecticut.