E-cigarettes: New smoking draws little fire

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Even though it was below the fold, the headline in Thursday's Style section of The New York Times jumped off the page: "Smoking Is Back, Without the Stigma."

It was a piece that would explain the whole e-cigarette phenomenon to semi-judgmental nonsmokers like myself who had heard about "electronic cigarettes," but have yet to fully wrap our heads around the subject.

Because I'm not the hippest person in the world, I've yet to be in the presence (as far as I know) of someone who lit up and smoked an actual e-cigarette.

"E-cigarettes have ushered in a generation of smokers who needn't cower in doorways," the article's subhead read. The piece then opened with a description of an outdoor party in Brooklyn featuring bikini-clad women and sweaty guys in muscle tees "puffing away as they danced" without any concern about "the law and decades of anti-smoking campaigns."

It was not the most decadent description of a party I've ever read, but I could see the reporter's point. It was definitely an unusual sight. In a town presided over by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the politician most responsible for the laws that pushed smoking out of most of New York's bars, restaurants and workplaces, one half-expected SWAT sharpshooters to descend on the site the reporter described as a "smoker's paradise."

Appearances to the contrary, the revelers were in full compliance with the letter of the law, though the spirit of the law was definitely taking a beating, judging by the presence of so many smokers blowing "vapor" clouds without a care in the world.

Because electronic cigarettes aren't a tobacco-based product and didn't exist when Mayor Bloomberg enacted his decade-old anti-smoking initiative, they're not covered by the city's strict laws. The FDA doesn't regulate them. That's why New Yorkers can -- and have been -- lighting e-cigarettes in public with impunity.

"E-cigarettes, which use a nicotine solution instead of tobacco and emit a smoke-like water vapor, are already popular in Asia and Europe but are only now catching on in the land of the Marlboro Man," the story said. "One major draw is that they allow smokers to indulge in places where their habit had been circumscribed or outlawed."

The product is reusable and comes with a charger, a flavored nicotine cartridge and paper to mimic the look of a real cigarette, including a "red tip" to indicate heat where there is none. The smells, stained teeth and health woes associated with tobacco aren't an issue. Even the "smoke" is a watery vapor with no negative second-hand effects, as far as we know.

Whenever e-smokers, who are increasingly called "vapors," are approached in bars or restaurants to put out their cigarettes, some make a gesture of pressing them to their foreheads to indicate they aren't real.

Who knows -- half a generation from now, we may find out that e-cigarettes are even more dangerous to our health than the witches' brew of chemicals in tobacco-based cigarettes, but the science isn't there to support that contention, yet. Still, there has to be some level of addiction involved if nicotine is present.

We should all be wary of accepting the assurances of an industry that has lied continuously for decades about the safety of its product despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that we can't get cancer from an e-smoker's second-hand vapor. Should folks be allowed to light up at their desks at work, in theaters and in commercial establishments again if there's no downside to public health? Are we prepared to possibly go back to levels of smoking last seen during the "Mad Men" era for the sake of personal freedom?

Admittedly, if I walk into the PG newsroom tomorrow and see most of my colleagues sitting at their desks smoking e-cigarettes as though they're in an update of "The Front Page," it wouldn't bother me. At that point, it would be an aesthetic choice -- not a public health issue.

I'm actually torn by this question because I'm a firm believer that laws should be a reflection of an enlightened give-and-take in society and not residual bias. Our drug laws are stupid, discriminatory and a drain on our national wealth because we refuse to revisit them, due to the toxic politics involved.

A law banning e-cigarettes based on nothing but its similarity to tobacco products would be cut from the same irrational cloth. I would even go so far as to suggest such a law would be hazardous to our democracy.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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