I used to smoke about a pack of American Spirits a day. But I was able to quit, thanks to the help of e-cigarettes. I order stuff from a brand called V2—a masterstroke of marketing, in my opinion. (Version 2.0: “It’s not quitting, it’s an upgrade! Because who wants to be a quitter?”)
The health improvement has been self-evident: it’s pleasant to be able to smell things again, and to not cough my lungs up every morning. I’m glad for this new technology, and I doubt I would have been able to quit any other way.
Imagine my dismay, then, at learning that Austin—where I lived for several years—is now cracking down on e-cigarettes. Austin is known for its progressivism, but one would have hoped the city had more Texan sense than that. Of course, many similar moves are happening across the nation. Much of this hysteria seems to be the result of two main things: a misunderstanding of the basic nature of e-cigarettes on the one hand, and a hunger for social power on the other.
Let’s start by talking about the e-cigarette itself, and why it is ridiculous to treat it like its old-fashioned cousin.
Here’s What An E-Cigarette Actually Does
First, the e-cigarette is not a tobacco product. E-cigarettes do not involve tobacco at all—and indeed, that’s the whole point. Normal cigarettes consist of tobacco rolled up in paper, and the nicotine within the tobacco is released through combustion (that is, setting the tobacco on fire). The user then inhales the smoke that is released through this process, and thereby absorbs the nicotine through his lungs. This inhalation of smoke results in the build of tar, which is one of the main factors that makes smoking a killer.
The e-cigarette, on the other hand, does not use tobacco. Rather, nicotine—the active drug in tobacco—is isolated and dissolved into a liquid solution. That solution not combusted, but rather vaporized (which is of course why “vaping” is a common term for the use of this product). The user still absorbs nicotine through his lungs, but what he is inhaling is not smoke but rather vapor, since the process does not produce smoke. This also means that there is no second-hand smoke: the vapor has almost no scent, and dissipates into the air as soon as it is exhaled. It is thus wrong and irresponsible to call the e-cigarette a tobacco product. It is actually a nicotine delivery system, akin to the patch and other devices that smokers have often used in their attempts to quit.
In this context, anyone who claims that e-cigarettes are “dangerous” is clearly not speaking from the perspective of a smoker. What’s really dangerous is inhaling smoke on a regular basis. There are scientific studies on this subject, but citing them would be like preaching to the converted. Perhaps I should just appeal to common sense instead: in what world would inhaling nicotine vapor be more dangerous than inhaling actual smoke?
It’s true that there has been some concern, perhaps legitimate, about e-cigarettes exploding. But occasional product malfunctions are almost inevitable in a young industry, and they are almost always worked out as the industry matures. In addition, most reported accidents involved people messing with the mechanics of their e-cigarettes, and as most of us know, there’s no helping stupid.
The Unique Magic of the E-Cigarette
The e-cigarette may prove to be uniquely effective as a quitting tool. This is because of a point most non-smokers don’t know: the trouble with quitting smoking is only in part about being hooked on nicotine. The broader problem is that smoking has a ritualistic aspect, and that the smoker’s body learns certain patterns and movements. It is, for example, disconcerting to not puff on something, after having gotten so used to puffing on something. This has little to do with the nicotine per se, but a lot to do with the natural anxiety felt by the body when you attempt to change its ingrained behaviors.
Likewise, a smoker is probably used to the motion of going inside and outside at regular intervals. He may also be used to smoking with his friends, after work, or whenever else. He may enjoy meeting people and making new friends while having a smoke in the courtyard or on the patio. In short, a person who is trying to quit smoking is essentially attempting to change his whole social and personal lifestyle. It’s not just about getting off the drug.
This is where the e-cigarette works its magic. The e-cigarette preserves all the ritualistic and behavioral aspects of being a smoker, but mitigates the harmful effects of the process. If the user has an e-cigarette with a light weight and a slim profile, it can trick his body into thinking that it’s having an actual smoke. Many e-cigarette companies also sell cartridges (the part with the nicotine solution) in varying concentrations, so that the user can wean himself off nicotine altogether, if that is his objective. In short, the e-cigarette has unique advantages that put it way ahead the competition when it comes helping smokers break their habit.
The Siren Song of Social Engineering
I would suggest that it is fundamentally un-American to tell a bar owner that he can’t smoke in his own establishment. The prerogative of free association should sort out any concern for the health of others: If each bar or cafe were left to make its own decision about smoking, then people with animosity toward smoking could choose to not patronize or work in such establishments. Likewise, other venues could advertise themselves as non-smoking to draw in that crowd; and this process could continue, until an equilibrium was reached.
That’s how the free market works. The government never needed to step into the picture, imposing a one-size-fits-all solution from above.
Progressives, however, have always had a keen interest in social engineering—which, among other things, involves forcing people into doing what the government deems best for them. This is fascism, by any other name. It takes a unique form in America, in that it seems so caring, compassionate, and concerned for your wellbeing. It is what Jonah Goldberg has called fascism with a smiley face, or maternal fascism. But it is fascism all the same. They’re going after e-cigarettes in the same way they’ve gone after normal cigarettes and many other things before.
I’ve mainly discussed e-cigarettes from the perspective of an ex-smoker, and the evidence thus far suggests that a large share of e-cigarette users are people like me. But even if e-cigarettes were to lure people who’ve never smoked into nicotine use, this would still not be a problem. Americans have the right to do things that may not good for them. If liberty means anything, it must imply the right to make bad personal decisions. It must mean that we can ask the government to leave us alone, as we conduct our own lives as we see fit. It must mean the opposite of social engineering.