Smokeless, odorless, and, indeed, tobacco-less, electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes,” in common parlance, are projected to become a $1 billion industry this year. Yes, that’s “electronic” cigarettes: battery-powered gadgets that convert liquid nicotine into vapor, which the user inhales. The act is known—unfortunately, if accurately—as “vaping.” (It’s important to note that one doesn’t smoke an e-cigarette.) Some e-cigs are made to closely resemble actual cigarettes—they have the same shape and color and even an LED light at the end, designed to simulate a lit butt. They come in a variety of flavors.
While e-cigs may resemble traditional cigarettes in both form (inhale, exhale) and function (the efficient delivery of nicotine), they’re probably considerably healthier than traditional “cancer sticks.” Research on e-cigs is still in its early stages, but they don’t contain many of cigarettes’ most harmful substances, like carbon dioxide and tar. Nicotine itself, moreover, is not a carcinogen. “Over the short term, e-cigarettes are almost certainly less harmful than smoking cigarettes,” Tom Glynn, director of the American Cancer Society’s International Cancer Control, has said.
Because vaping feels like smoking, e-cigs could also prove to be more effective cessation aids than nicotine gum, lozenges, or patches. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, told the Los Angeles Times in early July, “I think that there is a lot of evidence that these products are extremely helpful to many people in helping them quit smoking.” A recent Italian study found that 13 percent of smokers who tried e-cigarettes gave up traditional cigarettes; 70 percent of those ultimately quit e-cigs as well. That’s a similar success rate to other methods of tobacco cessation.
Patented in China in 2003, and on the market in Europe and North America since 2006, e-cigs started slow, but have taken off in the past couple of years, as taxes and restrictions on regular cigarettes have become ever more draconian. One analyst with Wells Fargo foresees sales surpassing $10 billion by 2017. In parts of Europe, particularly France, they’re more popular than in the States. Even in smallish French cities, like Toulouse (population 440,000), there are dozens of small stores that deal exclusively in e-cigs. (It is hard to imagine Sartre sucking on an electronic cigarette, though.) And although e-cigs only account for about 1 percent of the sales generated by cigarettes, analysts see nothing but growth ahead. It’s little wonder that tobacco giant Altria (the parent of Philip Morris USA)—if not literally smelling an opportunity—has announced its intention to get into the market, which has heretofore been dominated by smaller outfits.
The Food and Drug Administration, which has the power to regulate e-cigs, has yet to announce rules for the product. But a backlash from public health authorities at the state and local level has grown in concert with e-cigs’ rising popularity just the same. One would think that the states most keen to unplug e-cigarettes would be ones with the most to lose from their rise; that is, states full of tobacco farmers, like Virginia and North Carolina. But that’s not so. Instead, and seemingly paradoxically, it’s the states with the most stringent regulations on cigarettes that have taken up the anti-e-cigarette cause with abandon.
In California, for example, the state senate recently passed a bill that would ban the use of e-cigarettes wherever cigarette smoking is banned—which is just about everywhere in that famously anti-tobacco state. Indeed, some California counties and towns have gone so far as to ban cigarette smoking in private rental properties. And one of those, Contra Costa County, recently added e-cigs to its smoking ban, meaning that, yep, it is illegal to use an e-cigarette in a private apartment. Boston has a similar law banning e-cigs wherever smoking is banned, as does King County, Washington, home of Seattle. (Other states and localities have—reasonably—banned the sale of e-cigs to minors.) It’s odd that the states and localities most dedicated to weaning their populations off cigarettes would go after a potentially healthier alternative so enthusiastically. And it’s even odder that e-cigarettes, which produce no smoke, would be banned from public places, given that the ostensible rationale for public smoking bans is to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.
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.