Aaron Oberndor stands in his E Cig-City store in Laguna Beach. E-cigarettes are coming under scrutiny by a California senator who would like to classify them as tobacco products. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / July 24, 2013)

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This post has been corrected, as noted below.”

Laguna Beach restaurant owners are coping with customers who choose to boot up battery-powered, vapor-emanating electronic cigarettes in the absence of rules governing use of the devices.

Some restaurant managers see customers "vaping," a term connected with the e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution of propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin that contains nicotine and flavorings.

"Is it legal or illegal? No one knows," said Fouad Ziady, general manager of Las Brisas restaurant, which overlooks the ocean. "We don't have a problem [with customers using e-cigarettes], but there's a no-smoking ordinance in the city."

Laguna Beach does not have any laws pertaining to e-cigarette use, according to John Montgomery, the city's community development director. But e-cigarette regulation could be on the way if state legislators adopt a bill put forward by Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D-East Bay).

SB 648 would amend the state's civil code and classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products, meaning e-cigarettes would be outlawed where regular cigarettes are banned, such as public schools and day-care facilities.

State senators passed the bill, 21-10, moving it to the 17-member Assembly Committee on Government Organization.

The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill Aug. 7, said Eric Johnson, a committee consultant. If committee members approve the bill, it would go to the appropriations fiscal committee, like any other proposed legislation, Johnson said.

An advocacy group that promotes smoke-free alternatives opposes any attempt to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco.

"E-cigarettes do not emit smoke and the vapor is nontoxic," the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Assn.'s website reports. "There is no evidence to support including e-cigarette use in smoking bans. E-cigarettes do not deliver tar or carbon monoxide because they operate using vaporization rather than combustion."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate e-cigarettes unless the product manufacturer makes a therapeutic claim, FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski wrote in an email.

Researchers, including UC Riverside science professor Prue Talbot, are studying e-cigarette components and their effects on the health of users and bystanders.

Talbot and a group of post-doctoral students analyzed aerosol made when the fluid inside the e-cigarette is heated. They found certain metals such as tin, silver and iron in the aerosol.

"Nine of 11 elements in the aerosol were higher than or equal to corresponding concentrations in conventional cigarette smoke," according to the group's findings, published in March in the online journal PLOS ONE, an international peer-reviewed publication.

Talbot cautions that it is too early to jump to conclusions about whether the metals in the aerosol are harmful.

"It's also possible manufacturers have reduced metal content," Talbot said. "Products are changing rapidly and evolving."

California banned e-cigarette sales to anyone younger than 18 in March 2011, according to an Orange County Health Care Agency fact sheet on e-cigarettes.

At E-Cig City in Laguna Beach, manager Aaron Oberndorf said parents have tried buying e-cigarettes for their kids.

"We refuse service in those cases," Oberndorf said. "We ID everyone."

Jason Shaeffer opened E-Cig City in 2011 and business has been humming, Oberndorf said.