Timothy Magaw for Crain’s Cleveland

Charlie Lardomita has been an off-and-on smoker since he was about 16 years old. And while it’s only been two months since he lit up, the 38-year-old IT executive thinks this time he’s kicked the habit for good.

Forget the patch or nicotine gum. Mr. Lardomita swears by his electronic cigarette, a device that could be described as the lovechild of RoboCop and Joe Camel. He has made believers — or “vapors” — out of a handful of his friends who’ve since dropped traditional smokes. He even has dreamt of opening a vapor lounge — a one-stop shop and haven for e-cig connoisseurs — near his home in Kirtland.

“I’m so into them it’s ridiculous,” said Mr. Lardomita, chief technology officer for International Excess Alliance in Richmond Heights, a wholesaler of property, casualty and other types of insurance. “It’s the future of smoking.”

Mr. Lardomita surely isn’t alone.

Sales of the devices, which use electrically generated heat to vaporize liquids that can emit nicotine into the body, could reach $1.2 billion this year in the United States. Last year, sales were about $475 million, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, a Georgia-based trade group.

But as sales balloon, so have concerns with the devices, particularly by public health advocates who say their long-term effects are unknown.

Late last month, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and 39 other attorneys general asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the devices as tobacco products, which would restrict manufacturers’ advertising efforts and ability to sell to minors. Also, at present, the FDA doesn’t sanction e-cigs as a legitimate smoking cessation tool like the patch or gum.

Their rise has companies grappling with how to handle the devices — both in terms of their use by employees and patrons. It could be a slippery slope, as Ohio’s smoke-free workplace statute doesn’t refer explicitly to e-cigs, according to John Cernelich, who co-chairs the labor and employment group at law firm Calfee, Halter & Griswold in Cleveland. The law, as he sees it, could be argued both ways as to whether e-cigs are included.

While he hasn’t dealt with any workplace issues concerning the devices, Mr. Cernelich likened the e-cigs phenomenon to the growing use of social media in the workplace — a trend that has human resources executives scrambling to update their employee handbooks.

“This is just another situation that, as technology evolves, it eventually impacts the workplace,” he said.

No butts about it 

Mr. Lardomita has no issue vaping his e-cig in his office, though others have nixed the practice.

Huntington Bank, for one, doesn’t allow the use of tobacco or e-cigs in any of its buildings, parking lots, company-owned vehicles or at company-sponsored events. Lincoln Electric, a Euclid-based maker of welding equipment, won’t hire smokers and specifically notes in its policy that e-cig users fall into that category.

While not all employers ban tobacco use, many charge employees who light up higher premiums. Some are unsure whether to rope e-cig users into that category, according to Dr. Ronald Golovan, medical director for Be Well Solutions, a Solon-based wellness provider.

Dr. Golovan stressed that each company’s situation is different, but given that these devices transmit nicotine and aren’t regulated by the FDA, their proliferation in the workplace isn’t advisable.

“My hunch is that employers will probably want these to go away,” he said.

Consequently, e-cig users looking to sidestep a company’s non-smoking policy could be out of luck. Because the devices pump nicotine in the system, the urine analysis used by most employers would show trace amounts of the drug.

University Hospitals’ non-smoking policy doesn’t outright refer to e-cigs, but that could change soon.

“If you partake in any nicotine product without a prescription, you can’t be employed,” said Dr. Donald Rosenberg, the health system’s medical director for corporate health. “It makes sense that e-cigarettes should be included in these situations.”

E-cig users such as Mr. Lardomita say the vapor their devices emit is odorless and doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. He occasionally uses his in public, noting that he discretely vaped at the recent West Virginia-Oklahoma State football game.

That said, some big-ticket gathering spots are looking to snuff out the practice.

The Browns, Cavaliers and, within the last month, the Indians all have prohibited their use within their facilities. Indians spokesman Joel Hammond said the decision was to ensure “the most safe and family-friendly ballpark as possible.”

Solon-based Cleveland Cinemas, which operates the Cedar Lee and Capitol theaters, among others, doesn’t let moviegoers partake of the devices. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport’s smoking policy doesn’t include e-cigs, but airport officials said they’re reviewing the matter.

Ready for prime time 

While e-cigarettes have been available in some form for decades, they haven’t crept into the mainstream until recently. Last week, “Arrested Development” star Will Arnett took a drag off his e-cigarette during an appearance on a late-night talk show, with host Jimmy Kimmel quipping that he might be the first to vape on network television.

A Charlotte-based maker of the devices, blu E-Cigs, announced last week it was sponsoring a cross-country concert tour encouraging its fans to “embrace their freedoms” by using the devices. The tour will stop Oct. 31 in Cleveland at the House of Blues and offer adult smokers samples of the devices. A news release touted the devices as an alternative for smokers who don’t want to miss performances by their favorite artists while smoking outside.

These marketing ploys are a big concern for public health advocates, as many suggest the devices could be a gateway to full-fledged cigarettes or other drugs for young people.

“It’s a cool thing right now and being promoted on Internet and in advertisements,” University Hospitals’ Dr. Rosenberg said. “They make them sound as if they’re safe, but their long-term safety really is not known.”

Although it’s only been a few months since Mr. Lardomita traded his smokes for the battery-fueled variety, he says he’s already felt the benefits. He coughs less and his taste and smell have returned. Over time, he plans to transition toward an e-cig liquid with less and ultimately no nicotine, then just “puff on the vapor for the taste.”

“I really like that sensation of grabbing it and puffing it,” he said. “That’s always been the hardest part for me about quitting.”