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Thank You for Not Vaping

The irrational hostility to e-cigarettes.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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Perhaps the preemptive strike against e-cigs represents a stealthy introduction of the precautionary principle into American policy-making. The precautionary principle, in the words of the Science & Environmental Health Network, an advocacy organization, holds, “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (Italics mine.) In effect, new technologies must be proven not harmful before they can be legalized, rather than the burden of proof being on the regulators to show that the new technology is harmful.

While the principle, which was formulated by early German environmental thinkers, is the law of the land in the European Union, it’s never been adopted in the United States. Maybe that’s one reason why some European countries, including the United Kingdom, have taken the step of regulating e-cigarettes like medicine. (This will grant the authorities vast oversight over them.) France, meanwhile, following California’s lead, has announced its intention to ban e-cigarettes wherever cigarettes are banned.

The California senator who introduced the public place e-cigarette ban was nearly explicit in her invocation of the precautionary principle, saying, “We must always stand on the side of public health since we still do not yet fully understand the safety of chemicals present in e-cigarette vapors or when nicotine itself leaks from the products.” (She also—bizarrely—claimed, “It simply makes sense to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product when they are already prohibited in many public spaces,” even though e-cigarettes are not a tobacco product.) And Glynn of the American Cancer Society, while attesting to the short-term benefits of switching to e-cigarettes, has also said, “What are the long-term effects of inhaling pure nicotine into the lungs? That is something we don’t know.”

Yet while the e-cigarette reaction may be an example of legislators trying to introduce the precautionary principle by stealth, something else motivates the antipathy towards e-cigs as well. As Gregory Conley, legislative director at the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, says, “Those who work in ‘public health’ hate e-cigarettes because it goes against the denormalization campaign that they have been behind for several decades. The fact that tests on e-cigarette vapor have revealed e-cigarette use to likely be 98-99 percent less hazardous than smoking and that they help smokers quit is of no consequence to them. It looks like smoking .  .  . so it must be evil.”

Three decades of increasingly punitive anti-smoking regulations have made American smokers a pariah class. Smoking has been thoroughly de-normalized and wholly stigmatized. Smokers are no longer viewed as doing something merely stupid or self-destructive; smoking, to many, is now morally wrong. In this sense, e-cig makers have probably erred by calling them “cigarettes,” as it’s raised the ire of those with a visceral hatred for smoking—and smokers. One also gets the sense that the banners think that sucking on an e-cigarette in a public place represents a defiant flouting of anti-smoking laws rather than what it really is: obedience to anti-smoking laws.

The FDA is expected to announce its regulations on e-cigs in October. But in the meantime, the anti-e-cigarette crowd should take heart: Both Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan were recently spotted vaping e-cigarettes, which will probably do more to make them unattractive to the general public than anything the regulators can come up with.

Ethan Epstein is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.

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