The irrational war on electronic cigarettes.

Science, technology, and life.
June 3 2009 10:44 AM

Vapor War

Our irrational hostility toward electronic cigarettes.

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Governments seem to be buying this view. The FDA has officially barred importation of e-cigarettes. "These appear to be unapproved drug device products," a spokeswoman tells the Times, "and as unapproved products they can't enter the United States." Australia and Hong Kong have also prohibited the devices.

That's a pretty awkward position. We restricted smoking, tobacco sales, and advertising based on decades of evidence that smoking was harmful to smokers and bystanders. Now we're treating electronic cigarettes the same way based on ... what? That "nobody knows" how bad they might be? The elements of smoking that justified our war on tobacco—carcinogens, combustion, secondhand smoke, even nicotine—have been removed or made optional. Is it really logical to ignore these differences?

And why should we presume that vaping is as dangerous as smoking, when research on vaporized marijuana suggests the opposite? Here are two such reports quoted last week  in the Human Nature blog. First, a 2007 paper in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics:

Whereas smoking marijuana increased CO [carbon monoxide] levels as expected for inhalation of a combustion product, there was little if any increase in CO after inhalation of THC from the vaporizer. This indicates little or no exposure to gaseous combustion toxins. Combustion products are harmful to health and reflect a major concern about the use of marijuana cigarettes for medical therapy as expressed by the Institute of Medicine.

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And second, a 2007 study in the Harm Reduction Journal, which found

that respiratory symptoms like cough, phlegm, and tightness in the chest increase with cigarette use and cannabis use, but are less severe among users of a vaporizer. ... The odds ratio suggests that vaporizer users are only 40% as likely to report respiratory symptoms as users who do not vaporize, even when age, sex, cigarette use, and amount of cannabis consumed are controlled.

Let's be blunt about what's going on here. We tolerated smoking until science proved it was harmful to nonsmokers. As momentum grew, the war on smoking became cultural, with disapproval and ostracism of anyone who lit up. Electronic cigarettes have removed the war's scientific basis, but our cultural revulsion persists. Therefore, so does our prohibition and condemnation.

Maybe what we need is a convergence of the tobacco debate with the marijuana debate. In each case, vaporization is dissolving the categories and grounds that warranted prohibition. Liberals can see this, but only in the case of pot. Conservatives can see it, but only in the case of tobacco. Go talk to one another. The engineering and re-engineering of drugs will only get more complicated as technology improves. We'd better start thinking rationally about it.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The dawn of cyberwar. 2. Don't smoke pot; vaporize  it. 3. An ad for drinking recycled urine.)