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BILLINGS - At first glance - and even after a double take - Sadie Moss looked to be flouting the law.

A day after Montana's smoking ban went into effect, the bartender/manager of the Eagles Lodge bar in the Heights pulled out what appeared to be a cigarette, took a drag and exhaled a faint puff of smoke.

But Moss, who has smoked for years, had no intention of breaking the ban, although opinions vary on that point. Rather, she was trying to comply by opting for the latest alternative to the real thing.

What Moss held in her hand was an "electronic cigarette," also referred to as an e-cigarette or smokeless cigarette. Available in several brands, the nonflammable substitute weighs about the same as a typical cigarette but has a much slicker feel. The look-alike has a small rechargeable battery and a replaceable cartridge containing water, propylene glycol, nicotine and a scent that emulates tobacco or other flavorings.

When the "smoker" draws on the cigarette, an LED light in the tip glows red - or some different color, depending on the model. According to manufacturers, the e-cigarettes - which also come in a no-nicotine option - contain none of the tar or other additives found in tobacco products. And the "smoke" exhaled is actually a vapor mist created by the propylene glycol.

Moss still smokes real cigarettes when time allows. But as a bartender, she said, sometimes it's hard to fit in a smoking break.

"By far there's no comparison," she said, when asked to rate them. "But this will suffice."

Smokeless cigarettes date back at least to the late 1980s, when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company spent $1 billion to develop Premier. Within a year, it was dropped from the market because smokers just didn't take to it.

The latest e-cigarettes are relatively new and have only recently begun to show up in Montana, probably in response to the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act's Oct. 1 deadline.

At the Smoker Friendly store on Central Avenue, Vanessa Reed was manning the counter one morning last week. The store is one of several in the Billings area to sell electronic cigarettes. In the month and a half she's been working there, she's sold five of the starter kits.

"They replicate the behavior and physical pleasure of smoking," she said. "Older people, they seem to enjoy it because of the habit and they get their nicotine. But they always say it isn't the same."

At Smoker Friendly, the starter kit with rechargeable "butt," vaporizer and five cartridges runs a penny shy of $70. The cost of 10 cartridges, about the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes, is $20, or less than half the cost of a carton of tobacco cigarettes.

Several Billings casinos report a few patrons using the e-cigarettes. At Andy's Bar and Lounge on First Ave. N., bartender Steve Baldwin said three regulars had made the switch to indoor "smoking" on the first day of the ban.

Considering 90 percent of his clientele smokes - local bartenders and casino operators estimate anywhere between 70 and 90 percent do - the e-cigarettes could catch on quickly. The bar at the Eagles Lodge stocks one brand, though Moss said she hasn't sold any yet.

"But I think they'll start," she said.

However, at least a few establishments have drawn the line. David Sano, the day bartender at Bones Brewery in Doc & Eddy's said he won't allow the smokeless substitute.

"If someone sees it, they'll want to light up a real one," he said. "I just don't want the conflict."

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Advertised as legal in airplanes, trains and other public places, the e-cigarettes are touted by proponents who say they emit no secondhand smoke. At least one European airline, Ryanair, sells them on board its flights, asserting that nonsmokers will no longer have to put up with moody, nicotine-starved smokers.

Dawn Willett at Doc & Eddy's Maverick casino pointed to the definition of "smoking" in the Montana statute.

" 'Smoking'...includes the act of lighting, smoking or carrying a lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe or any smokable product," it says. Since the e-cigarettes are not lighted, she figured no problem.

But the Department of Public Health and Human Services interprets the law differently. Linda Lee, section supervisor with the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program, said the department's attorney considers e-cigarettes as "smokable products" that are subject to the ban.

Most of the electronic cigarettes are made in China where they aren't regulated, Lee said. A Food and Drug Administration study concluded that the cartridges listed as containing no nicotine, in some cases did. Researchers also detected low levels of impurities and tobacco-specific nitrosamines, known to be some of the most potent carcinogens in tobacco smoke. Another health report indicated some brands contain toxic levels of nicotine.

One e-cigarette manufacturer in the United Kingdom contested the criticism, claiming their product to be healthier than the tobacco alternative. But the DPHHS isn't buying it.

"We're getting more questions about this than other things," Lee said Friday. "The FDA is obviously worried about it. We're hoping people won't use them. And for now, we see them as covered under the law."

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