Americans have always struggled over the distinction between disapproving of a behavior because it's bad for people and disapproving of a behavior because it makes people feel good. Unsurprisingly, then, the advent of e-cigarettes—devices that allow you to get the pleasure of smoking without taking the lung-cancer risks of actually inhaling tobacco tar—has inspired a new moral panic that looks a lot like the public health campaign against real cigarettes but might not be anything more than old-fashioned priggishness. Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to regulate the indoor smoking of e-cigarettes, or vaporizers, in basically the same way they regulate regular cigarettes. Wednesday, the New York Times ran a piece about fears over the e-cigarette with that perennial phrase of any respectable moral panic, "lure young," right there in the headline.
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.
Both the Times article and the situation in LA appear to back up his concern that the social taboos around real cigarettes are being transferred to e-cigarettes for emotional, not scientific reasons. LA Council President Herb Wesson, himself addicted to actual cigarettes, got emotional during the debate. "When you’re 15, you want to be cool," he said. "And I will not support anything—anything—that might attract one new smoker."
Justifying hostility toward e-cigarettes on the grounds that they might persuade young people to use real cigarettes pops up in the Times article as well. "Health officials worry that such views will lead to increased nicotine use and, possibly, prompt some people to graduate to cigarettes." The idea here is that, because nicotine is addictive, people might get addicted to it with vaporizers and then, for reasons utterly unexplained, just switch to the stinkier, more expensive, more socially taboo nicotine delivery systems known as cigarettes. Because reasons. Hey, it's our youth! Be afraid.
But the Times does not produce any evidence that e-cigarettes are a health hazard. Yes, many of the products you smoke in vaporizers have nicotine in them, and, yes, nicotine is addictive. But the traditional reason that nicotine addiction is bad for you is because it induces you to expose yourself to other, genuinely dangerous chemicals that are found in products that also contain nicotine. Of course, I'm talking about cigarettes. But nicotine on its own, while addictive, does not appear to be bad for you, which is why health officials sign off on nicotine replacement therapies that don't have the tar and other chemicals that you find in real cigarettes. The panic over nicotine addiction in and of itself seems circular: Nicotine addiction is bad because addiction is bad. Addiction is bad because don't you know that addiction is bad? I'll explain it to you just as soon as I finish this cup of coffee.
It could be that further research will reveal that e-cigarettes are actually dangerous, but until then, it seems wise to slow our roll, especially since there is some, though anecdotal, evidence that e-cigarettes are helping real smokers get the monkey off their backs. Certainly, it's appropriate for the Food and Drug Administration to get into the business of regulating e-cigarettes to make sure they don't have a bunch of toxic and unnecessary chemicals in them, just as the FDA currently regulates other nicotine replacement products like gum and patches. But right now the panic over e-cigarettes seems to stem strictly from the fact that vaporizers, unlike patches or gum, are a way to get a nicotine fix that's actually fun. And fun, especially when experienced by Our Youth, is always something that makes the moral scolds shoot first and research later.