D.C. Music Venues Are Making Their Own Rules For E-Cigarettes

By Ally Schweitzer

Raymond Hart has vaped all over the District of Columbia. A former two-pack-a-day smoker, the 25-year-old says he’s used his smoking cessation device on an American University shuttle bus. At a music festival in Eastern Market. During Jay Z and Lil Wayne concerts at Verizon Center. In fact, he says, he’s vaping a flavored juice right now, while we talk on the phone.

“It’s cucumber mojito,” he says.

But D.C. music venues aren’t sure what to do with people like Hart. The District, like municipalities all over the country, is still figuring out how to handle e-cigarettes, the increasingly popular smoking alternative that health officials don’t know much about yet.

The devices haven’t been formally stricken from bars and nightclubs like cigarettes were in 2007, but District legislators have tried: In 2013, Council members Yvette Alexander and David Grosso co-introduced legislation to treat e-cigarettes like tobacco products. That bill went nowhere.

In the meantime, researchers continue to uncover troubling as well as promising science on e-cigarettes, and nearby Montgomery County is considering banning them from public places. This week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said health officials are in “desperate need of clarity” on vapes.

As long as e-cigarettes occupy a legal grey area in D.C., people like Hart are free to use them wherever they want — except in places that have taken it upon themselves to ban them, like Madam’s Organ on 18th Street NW.

The Adams Morgan nightspot put the kibosh on vapes a few months ago, says owner Bill Duggan. He says he was creeped out by what he didn’t know about them.

“I had a friend of mine smoking one of those in my bar,” Duggan says. “And I was like, ‘What is in that?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m like, ‘Well, if you don’t know, don’t smoke it around me.'”

9:30 Club doesn’t permit e-cigarettes, says a spokesperson. Hart says he’s vaped at Verizon Center, but officially, e-cigarettes are banned there, too, according to Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s Sheila Francis. Francis writes in an email that the devices fall under “our standard no-smoking policy.”

“I had a friend of mine smoking [an e-cigarette] in my bar. And I was like, ‘What is in that?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m like, ‘Well, if you don’t know, don’t smoke it around me.’” —Bill Duggan, Madam’s Organ

But if Hart wanted to, he could still bring his e-cigarette into Echostage. The megaclub on Queens Chapel Road NE still allows the devices inside. “I see them a lot,” writes venue owner Antonis Karagounis in an email. “I would say 5 percent of people use them. I don’t smoke, but they don’t bother me, personally.”

At vape-friendly places like Echostage, concertgoers irked by e-cigarettes’ vapor clouds are forced to revert to tactics used by nonsmokers in the days before widespread smoking bans: Move elsewhere, or ask the puffers to stop. In a Tumblr post headlined “Please Stop Vaping at Punk Shows,” writer Bryne Yancey takes the latter approach.

“Vaping at a show is just as bad as stagediving feet first,” Yancey writes. “It reeks of a severe lack of self-awareness and a severe surplus of belligerent entitlement.”

When I ask DIY show promoter Jacob Knibb how he feels about e-cigarette use at shows, he says his promotion group Select DC has no official policy. But he suggests that e-cigarette users face hazards beyond potential health risks.

“E-cigarettes and vaporizers are great if you want to come across as a futuristic bounty hunter,” Knibb writes in a Facebook message. “That’s a hard look to pull off well, and most people end up looking painfully obnoxious.”

Knibb is tapping into another potential outcome of using e-cigarettes: mockery from one’s peers. A growing consensus among non-vapers is that the devices make people look like, well, dorks. E-cigarettes have been called “fedoras for the mouth.” In 2012, Gawker ran a blog post titled, “Electronic Cigarettes Will Never Be Cool.” They seem too health-conscious to be rebellious, writer Hamilton Nolan reasoned. Plus, they have a glowing light at the end. Lame.

Hart says he’s never been asked to stop vaping at a concert. But he has gotten curious questions from people interested in experimenting with e-cigarettes. “It’s always been, ‘Hey, I’m trying to quit, too,'” he says.

Meanwhile, Duggan stands by his decision to eliminate e-cigs from Madam’s Organ. Until they’re declared perfectly safe, he’s happy to keep them away from his non-vaping customers.

“That’s the good news about having your own business. You can make up your own policies,” Duggan says. “It’s good to be king.”

Photo by The Best Electronic Cigarette Review used under a Creative Commons license.