Next, I tried lighting up in the express line at the grocery store. I thought it was incongruous to have a basket containing arugula and bananas while I smoked, but then I remembered that the president himself is an arugula-loving smoker. As I puffed, the man in front of me turned and stared until finally asking, "Is that a fake cigarette?"
"Why do you say that?" I replied.
"Because it's not real," he responded.
By this time the checker chimed in, "I know where you got that. I saw that at the mall!" and she burst out laughing. Soon everyone in line was laughing at my vaping, which did not exactly give me the feeling of being the quintessence of cool.
One Saturday night my husband and I went out to dinner with friends, and I pulled out my e-cig as we sat at a long banquette. The three of them tried to pretend they didn't know me, but the reaction from the rest of the patrons made me feel like a world-class transgressor. As I took drag after drag, everyone on either side of me stopped their conversation, looked at me in astonishment, then whispered to each other and pointed. It was as if I'd taken out a length of rubber hose, tied it around my arm, and inserted a hypodermic of heroin. Finally the woman at the next table asked the inevitable, "Are you smoking?" I explained it was an e-cigarette. She became excited and said, "I have to get one of these!" I asked if she was a smoker. She wasn't but she explained, "I love it. It's so cool!" Then the waiter came over for our order, saw me, and said, "Sorry. You can't. It's not allowed. You. Oh. Oh, I see. It's a—cool." Finally, I had achieved some quintessence.
My experiments were taking a toll, however. I had to dose myself not only with breath mints but painkillers as well. I worried that my fake cigarette might contain a brew of the greatest hits of Chinese contaminates: antifreeze, melamine, puffer-fish toxin (or even MSG!), because each time I took a puff a sharp pain ran across the top of my skull. (This eventually became a Pavlovian response, and all I'd have to do was pull the e-cig out of my purse and my head would start throbbing.)
When my family came for a visit, I served them brunch while blowing my e-cig. Their shock made my headaches worthwhile. My sister, a former smoker, quickly realized I was faking. Still, she observed me closely, finally saying, "If you'd been a smoker, it would have developed another side of your personality. The nasty barfly side."
E-cigarette manufacturers like to give the impression that health-monitoring agencies have approved their product. This is not the case. Dr. Jack Henningfield, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and a consultant to the World Health Organization on tobacco policy, says WHO calls them an "electronic nicotine delivery system," or ENDS, and unless the manufacturers can prove that their products are safe and effective, WHO is going to want to see an end to ENDS. He says, "It stuns me people would so willingly accept the word of manufacturers from an unregulated industry, claiming their product is safe and pure when they won't tell us what's in it and haven't done the most basic studies."
Dr. Saul Shiffman, an expert on nicotine addiction at the University of Pittsburgh, says the manufacturers are pushing their products as both a way to quit smoking and a way to keep smoking, which is problematic. He echoes Henningfield's safety concerns, "How do you know what chemicals are being dissolved and conveyed? Or that they're not full of bacteria that [are] setting up residence in your lungs? When you buy this, you're becoming the guinea pig." Exactly! (I was somewhat relieved to see the Ruyan Group paid for a New Zealand researcher to test its product, and he found it to be safe.)
Despite my saleswoman's assurances, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved e-cigarettes and considers them a drug-delivery system. Says an FDA spokeswoman, Rita Chappelle, "As such, it's illegal to sell or market them." Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has called for the agency to pull the e-cigs off the market, a request endorsed by, among others, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association. I called Smoking Everywhere to ask about its legal situation, but no one ever got back to me.
Considering the various downsides—bad breath, headaches, the FDA says they're illegal—perhaps the e-cigarette is not the answer to our president's surreptitious vice. So, Mr. Obama, when you're at your desk and you get that insatiable craving, do all of us a favor, stay where you are and pop a piece of nicotine gum.