Smoke Signals

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Intrigued by debates over the unregulated electronic cigarette, City Room decided to take an e-cigarette out for a spin in Bloomberg’s anti-smoking New York City.

An e-cigarette was put into action, releasing some pretty realistic-looking smoke, on a subway car waiting at the end of the V line at Second Avenue in Manhattan. Four blond women, presumably European tourists by the sound of their accents, glared and moved to the next subway car. Another person stepped into the car, saw the puffing, and turned right back out.

Such hostility.

Smokers, not surprisingly, received the e-cigarette much more warmly; apparently, the sight of an e-cigarette is an open invitation to start a conversation. “Are you trying to quit smoking?” a man at the West 4th Street station asked. He was a pack-a-day smoker and someone had tried to sell him one of the devices, so he said he recognized it immediately.

The questions from the man and two other people sitting on the bench — one who called herself a “party smoker” — were myriad. How much does it cost? ($120.) Was there really nicotine? (Yes.) What creates the “smoke?” (The same stuff as fake fog.) What happens when you run out of nicotine? (Replacement packs.)

The man provided a warning — watch out in the subway, as the police ticket for smoking. He once got stopped by the police while walking down the steps with a cigarette still burning in his hand.

At 14th Street, another man with a pack-a-day habit and various face piercings said $120 was a lot for a cigarette. He was reminded that it was less than two weeks’ supply of cigarettes for him, given that packs cost $10.

At the Internet Week launch party at the Puck Building in Soho, smokers who had gathered outside seemed to bond in their collective refugee status. Would those with e-cigarettes continue to huddle outside with their brethren? (It would depend on the temperature outside, everyone agreed.)

While the tip of the e-cigarette lights up during inhalation in a relatively convincing replica of burning red embers, the device goes dead otherwise. In fact, given the long white plastic and rounded gray top, you look like you are holding a very unsexy Bic pen.

As the forefront of Bloomberg’s anti-smoking campaign was centered on bars, a visit was made to Gaslight, which claims to be the original bar in the Meatpacking District. Determined and mighty puffing at the bar to draw the attention of the slim, blond bartender failed; she remained cheerfully oblivious.

It turns out that a bar is actually the most discreet place to smoke a fake cigarette because it’s dark. You can barely see the cigarette except when you are inhaling. The smoke, which has no smell, quickly and discreetly dissipates.

The Gaslight’s manager, Stephen Learn, gushed enthusiastically. “It’s a great idea!” he said. “There is no smoke. There is a nicotine dose in there.” He took the hands of one of the bartenders, Tanya Manolcheva, to touch the “burning” end to demonstrate there was no heat.

Ms. Manolcheva, who has been working in restaurants and bars for more than a decade, remembers the day in March 2003 when the Bloomberg administration banned smoking in bars as one of the happiest days of her life. “It was the best thing that happened because we were able to breathe better,” she said.

While no fan of tobacco cigarettes, she welcomed the e-cigarette. “If it’s odorless and it doesn’t bother other people, then people can smoke it in bars.”

Mr. Learn asked if he could try one. Unfortunately, with an e-cigarette, there is no pack to pull out. While sharing a tobacco cigarette is a gesture of bonding and trust, there was just something a bit awkward about sharing a plastic device that was so much more … permanent. Instead of feeling intimate, it felt akin offering to share an asthma inhaler. There is no glamor in that.

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