Let me get one thing out of the way: I hate cigarette smoke. Hate isn’t even a strong enough word for my violent contempt for smoking. It’s twofold: Smokers stink up common air and often litter common space. When people in public parks flick their butts on walkways they cede their civil rights and we should be able to water board them in the fountain.
And yes, I’m a reformed smoker and a total hypocrite. I smoked like a rendering plant from the time I was a young teenager until I was nearly 30. I attribute my stopping to draconian and fascistic public policy: I couldn’t smoke in restaurants; I couldn’t smoke in bars; in some states I couldn’t smoke 100 feet from said establishments. It got more and more expensive as normally tax-resistant politicians taxed the hack out of my vice. Smoking made me a social pariah.
It was no longer fun nor chic nor dignified so I quit.
In quitting smoking I also ended my life-long love affair with nicotine. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a delectable drug that stimulates brain function, decreases appetite and calms nerves. And then after years of dependence it makes you think it’s akin to oxygen and the notion of being without it sends you into a panic. As an irony to this soothing and comforting drug, long-term use of nicotine means you’re rarely ever calm. So to me quitting smoking only to chew nicotine gum is a lateral move. All the health benefits and financial motivations of not smoking are null and void if you are still on nicotine.
Enter e-cigarettes. First off no one would ever brag about how they quit smoking pot and only vaporize now. They’d still be considered a pothead (or Maureen Dowd). But we have these distinctions with nicotine. People can believe they’ve quit smoking cigarettes and chew, patch, or vape instead. Legally e-cigarettes have slipped under the radar—evident by the television commercials and advertisement space not available to other tobacco products for at least a decade.
Now a group of 53 scientists with the blessing of Big Tobacco are pleading with the U.N.’s World Health Organization not to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products because it will save lives. The argument is that if people switch to vaporizing tobacco it’s healthier so the electronic version of cigarettes should continue to be unregulated. This is complicated for me. I can be in a car with all the windows rolled up and drive by someone smoking a cigarette and get annoyed because I smell smoke. Conversely if someone sitting right next to me puffs away on an e-cig I can’t detect it let alone care. As someone who finds cruel and unusual punishment appropriate for smokers—I don’t have the same passion for vaporized nicotine.
Laws like the one in my state banning e-cigarettes in restaurants and bars just seem arbitrary and knee-jerk against something that looks like smoking. Would we back a law that banned chewing nicotine gum on airplanes? Perhaps. Would people comply? Nope. Then the law exists only for lawmakers’ catharsis and not for any real public health benefit.
However I am grateful that public shaming motivated me to get off nicotine for good. I’m happy there was an austere, punitive and totally unfair tax to disincentivize smoking. I think it’s a horrible pointless addiction I’d only wish on people I don’t like (smokers for example).
Here’s where my conflict is: I don’t like nicotine but don’t think my opinion of a drug should mean it’s unavailable to others to enjoy. Even if that drug is admittedly carcinogenic. Sure, e-cigarettes are harmful to public health but obesity is also a wide public health crisis and I’m not going to support a ban on beige food. I can personally find things other people do to be objectionable and not try to stop them. It’s only when it seeps into my space where there’s an issue of contention. So I’m OK with e-cigarettes being allowed in places you can’t smoke in.
That being said, e-cigarettes should be classified as tobacco. Yes they’re technically a “nicotine delivery device” derived from tobacco. For all intents and purposes—it’s tobacco. They should have to abide by the same laws as other tobacco products. They should be taxed just like other tobacco products. The FDA should regulate them just like other tobacco products and the WHO should categorize them just like other tobacco products.
Vaping should be a healthier option for nicotine—not a gaping loophole.
Photo by Ken Hawkins