Should I be ostracized for smoking electronic cigarettes?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
April 6 2009 3:23 PM

Where There's E-Smoke …

Should I be ostracized for smoking electronic cigarettes?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Barack Obama is under a lot of stress, which must be testing his oft-repeated vow to quit smoking. But no one wants to think of the president of the United States sneaking away from his desk, furtively taking a drag in the Rose Garden, and flicking his butts into Michelle's vegetable patch.

One day, I saw at a mall kiosk the perfect solution for satisfying Obama's cravings while allowing him to remain at work in the Oval Office: the electronic cigarette. It was clear that my patriotic duty as the Human Guinea Pig was to test this device as a proxy for the president. I would try smoking electronically in places that banned the real thing, which meant nearly every place in Washington, D.C., and my neighboring home county, since both have some of the most restrictive smoking laws in the country.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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As I approached the Smoking Everywhere kiosk at Westfield Montgomery mall, the young woman selling e-cigarettes took a deep inhale of one and let out what looked like a cloud of smoke. She was "vaping," the new verb for inhaling the vapor generated by the e-cigarette. People around the world have been vaping since only 2004, when the first e-cig from China's Ruyan Group hit the market. There are now more than a dozen imitators. The e-cigarette contains no tobacco and produces no smoke. Instead, it is an ingenious electronic device that at very fleeting glance looks like the real thing. The "filter" is a receptacle for nicotine suspended in propylene glycol—the main ingredient in deodorant sticks and artificial smoke machines. This is screwed onto the body of the "cigarette," which is actually a battery and a heating element. When the user sucks on the filter, a nicotine-laced vapor is produced, satisfying a smoker's cravings. A little orange light at the end of the e-cig that illuminates with each inhale adds to the verisimilitude. It is not completely convincing, however. There is no ash or smoke curling from the tip, it never burns down, and it is awkwardly heavy.

The saleswoman handed me a tester. I puffed, and it filled my mouth with a mist that tasted so revolting that three sticks of gum couldn't eradicate it. An electronic-cigarette kit that came with two cigarettes, a charger, and five filter replacements (each was the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes) would cost me $129, she said. But I felt like a hedge-fund sharpie when I negotiated a discount on this toxic asset to only $100. (Like others who have been deluded about their financial acumen, I was fleeced: When I got home, I saw I could have ordered the Smoking Everywhere kit on Amazon for $68.)

The instruction manual had an epigrammatic Confucian (and confusing) air: "The birth of 'electronic cigarette' is a revolution of mankind's smoking history. Undoubtedly, its birth will bring a gospel to mankind, especially th[e] vast smokers and will have extremely far-reaching impact on human being's lifestyle." I was less concerned about my lifestyle than my life. I had asked the saleswoman how safe the e-cig was, and she assured me that in the five years since it's been introduced, "no one's gotten hurt." She also told me the e-cigarette had FDA approval.

Smoking Everywhere allows you to choose filter cartridges with different levels of nicotine. I selected "none," which meant my e-cig was the buzz-free equivalent of nonalcoholic beer. The cigarette came in flavors such as tobacco, vanilla, mint, and apple. I took the saleswoman's advice that apple was refreshing. If you enjoy spraying Febreze Apple Spice & Delight air freshener in your mouth, this is indeed the flavor for you. Fortunately, as bad as the mist tasted, there was no noticeable odor, and it dissipated almost immediately, and thus didn't create a secondhand vapor problem.

The electronic cigarette is the latest in a line of devices that are supposed to satisfy smokers' cravings while not enveloping bystanders in noxious fumes. The most famous is probably Premier, the smokeless cigarette that R.J. Reynolds thought was going to revolutionize the industry in the 1980s. Barbarians at the Gatetells the story of how Premier became one of American business's biggest marketing fiascos. Among its problems were that it tasted "like shit" and "smelled like a fart." There have been a few attempts since, but neither Reynolds' Eclipse nor Philip Morris' Accord has caught on.

I admit I was not the ideal candidate to test the e-cigarette's effectiveness as a smoking substitute, since I've never smoked. OK, I may have surreptitiously had half a dozen pilfered cigarettes in junior high with my friend Merrill. I probably would have become a smoker if it hadn't been for my mother's influence. My mother said cigarettes were her best friend, and she smoked a pack or two of her pals every day for more than more than 50 years, until lung disease forced her to quit. Growing up, it was impossible to imagine her without one in her hand making her moods—anxious, furious, charming—manifest. My rebellion was to not be a smoker like her.

In his paean to smoking, Cigarettes Are Sublime, literary critic Richard Klein writes that the cigarette is "endowed with magical properties and seductive charms, surrounded by taboos and an air of danger." Journalist Richard Kluger in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the tobacco industry, Ashes to Ashes, writes of the bewitching power of smoking, "[T]he cigarette is a uniquely intimate possession. … [S]moking is essentially a physical and highly sensual experience … the quintessence of cool … the lazy, sinuous ribbon wafting upward, signaling that the smoker exists." My e-cigarette gave me an inkling of all this, even if the e-cig is decidedly not sublime, and I was signaling only that propylene glycol exists.

I remember when people smoked in hospital waiting rooms, when airplanes had smoking sections, when the arts and crafts project of choice at summer camp was an ashtray for one's parents. But that was 40 years ago. I was apprehensive about testing whether the e-cig would really allow me to smoke everywhere. As Klein points out, "[T]he discursive performance of smoking has become a form of obscenity." I decided to make my debut performance on Washington's subway system, the Metro. Metro has a zero tolerance approach to the oral fixations of its riders. No eating, drinking, or smoking is allowed—passengers have been arrested for consuming a single French fry or finishing off a candy bar.

Nervously, I stood in the middle of the subway car, pulled my e-cig out of my purse, took a drag and exhaled. Immediately four older women across from me began murmuring to each other and looking at me disapprovingly. After about a minute, one couldn't stand it anymore. "Are you smoking?" she called to me, making it clear this was a rhetorical question.

I'm sure among the 45 million American adults who smoke there are many who are polite, even abashed about it. But a cigarette (even if it's a fake) has a magic-wand-like power to induce a sense of arrogant insolence in the user. I wanted to vape in her face and say, "What's it to you?" Instead, I smiled and took my e-cig and pretended to put it out on the back of my hand. The ladies immediately went from outrage to fascination. Where did I get it? What is it for?

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