It’s a smoldering issue for many cities — how to handle electronic cigarettes, the increasingly popular new alternative to conventional smokes.

Specialty shops that sell e-cigarette products and lounges where customers can sample products are popping up in Twin Cities suburbs. But one western suburban city council, fearing a stampede of e-cig retailers, has pulled back the reins.

This fall, Hopkins approved a tobacco license for one electronic cigarette retailer on its Mainstreet, then promptly passed a yearlong moratorium banning any more until it can better study the issue.

City retailers with tobacco licenses can continue to sell electronic cigarettes, but are prohibited from on-site sampling. Hopkins’ one electronic cigarette lounge, the Vaping Studio, is allowed to stay open and have on-site sampling during the moratorium.

The popularity of electronic cigarettes is growing across the country and in Minnesota. In the past six months alone, five vaping retailers, including a kiosk at the Northtown Mall, have opened in the north metro city of Blaine.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale. Users absorb nicotine without the thousands of chemicals, tar or odor of conventional cigarettes.

E-cigs and the chemical mixtures used in them are largely unregulated by federal and state law, so cities have little guidance on how to manage these new businesses.

That’s why Hopkins city leaders decided to put the brakes on more vaping rooms. City leaders, who banned hookah lounges just a year ago, want to learn more about vaping and the products used in the process. Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson said the council hopes state and federal authorities will step in soon and set some regulations on vaping.

“What is in these e-cigarettes?” he asked. “There’s just some education that needs to be done. We don’t want to have a run on tobacco licenses. There were also some concerns [that] youth are getting into vaping.”

Mornson said city leaders are wondering about the best locations for these types of businesses. The one vaping room in town is in a basement space on Hopkins’ historic Mainstreet.

“If these are going to be allowed, where is the best place for them to be allowed? It created a little bit of concern if these should be situated throughout our Mainstreet area,” Mornson said. “I think you are going to see a lot of these issues front and center in a lot of communities. They are exploding as far as sales.”

Hopkins Council Member Jason Gadd said the moratorium is not a judgment on vaping, but purely about safety.

“It is a new area,” he said. “There is no regulation on it. We want to make sure our residents are protected. That’s why we are giving the staff some time to take a look at it. I am sure there will be state and federal regulations coming out.”

Bars, theaters see more use

E-cigs don’t smell or create smoke like conventional cigarettes, and users can control the amount of nicotine involved. Proponents of vaping say it’s cleaner, safer and less intrusive than conventional smoking.

Still, some are questioning their use in public. Local bars and restaurants are starting to see more use. Gadd, a nonsmoker, said he’s seen someone vaping in a local movie theater, says he’s not sure yet how he feels about that.

Electronic cigarettes are not restricted under the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, so businesses and some cities, including Duluth, are adopting their own rules.

In Anoka County, the Blaine City Council has approved five tobacco licenses for e-cigarette rooms. But during recent tobacco compliance checks involving a minor who was working with police, 13 of the city’s 54 licensed tobacco retailers, including two electronic cigarette retailers, failed.

‘It’s here to stay’

Paula Williams, who owns the Vaping Studio at 811 Mainstreet in Hopkins, has been open for business for six weeks.

Williams, the controller at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, decided to go into the vaping business after seeing a number of vaping shops in Florida during a March trip.

“They had a vaping shop on every corner. It was like Walgreens,” she said. “People call it a fad. I think it’s here to stay.”

Williams, 50, who has owned several businesses, including the Delightful Biteful catering company, began researching the vaping industry and writing a business plan.

She mixes the liquids that she sells to her clients on site in a kitchen, using gloves and other cleanliness standards she learned in the catering industry. She said her mixtures include food-grade propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and nicotine, bought from a North Carolina chemical company, if customers want it. Most do, she says, but a few smoke without it.

Williams said her store asks anyone who looks under 25 for an ID.

Customers can buy liquids in 35 flavors, ranging from black honey tobacco to banana bread and Smurffette, which is a mixture of wild blueberry and French vanilla. Customers often come in for a tasting experience.

Vaping is less expensive than smoking, Williams said. A starter vaping device and liquid costs around $30. Liquid refills are around $7 each and are the equivalent of around five packs of cigarettes. More elaborate vaping devices cost upward of $100.

Williams, a 30-year smoker, said she lights up conventional cigarettes much less now that she vapes.

Molly McIntosh, Williams’ store manager, said she’s smoking less too now that she vapes. Her hair no longer reeks of cigarette smoke and her smoker’s cough has gone away, she said.

“I have people pass me on the street and say, ‘Oh, your perfume smells so good,’ said McIntosh, 18. It’s actually the smell from her flavored vaping. “I used to have a smoker’s cough. I am too young for a smoker’s cough.”

‘It’s the Wild West’

The American Lung Association has taken a position against electronic cigarettes, saying they are not proven smoking-cessation devices.

“Our position is we feel these devices are really not well understood and we know they are not well regulated,” said Robert Moffitt, spokesman for the American Lung Association in Minnesota. “We are advocating the FDA to step up. Right now, it’s in limbo. It’s the Wild West in terms of retail shops opening up, the type of information going out and the claims being made.

“We would urge caution for anyone thinking about trying them or any community that would allow a proliferation of these shops to open up,” he said.

Moffitt said the fact that chemicals are mixed in shop backrooms should give consumers pause and that the proliferation of fruity flavors can entice children and teens. He also pointed to the growth in television ads for vaping products, which conventional cigarette companies are forbidden from running.

“We have not seen a tobacco commercial on the air in 40 years,” he said. “They are taking advantage of this utter lack of regulation to do what they will.”