Last Tuesday, Los Angeles joined New York and Chicago in banning electronic cigarette use from public places such as parks, restaurants and night clubs. City Council’s argument was two-fold: the long-term effects of e-cigarette usage are unknown, and e-cigarettes make smoking seem “cool” and could be a gateway to smoking conventional cigarettes (think of the children!).
Now, when it comes to paternalistic overreaches, I normally eschew using or addressing arguments from effect and instead appeal to principles, but I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons: First, the principled argument—that nanny-state tactics discourage personal responsibility and undermine our autonomy and dignity—is obvious, and second, since ban proponents are relying solely on consequentialism to bolster their case, any principled argument directed their way would fall on deaf ears.
So let’s examine the claim that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. At the deciding City Council debate in Los Angeles, Council President Herb Wesson lamented his over his addiction to cigarettes, saying the pressure to be “cool” pushed him to it. Matt Richtel at The New York Times wrote an article illustrating the deceptive nature of e-cigarette marketing and how manufacturers lure children. And Dr. Stanton Glantz at The University of California conducted a study that shows young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely than non-users to smoke actual cigarettes (won’t somebody please think of the children?!).
Sorry, but all this fear mongering about e-cigarettes seducing our children into a Sandra Dee-style transformation is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Despite the testimony of a chain-smoking council president and the opinion of a journalist whose main thesis seems to be, “let’s save our idiot kids from themselves,” there is no conclusive evidence that smoking e-cigarettes leads to starting or increasing cigarette use.
Examining Richtel’s argument, he claims that the problem with e-cigarettes, or vape pipes, is that many of them don’t resemble actual cigarettes, so kids who use them don’t make the connection between the two. If that were the case though, how would kids draw the conclusion that cigarettes are cool from using e-cigarettes? He may perhaps argue that the addictive nicotine found in e-cigarettes is problematic for teens, but many states already have or are considering bans on selling them to minors anyway, so legislation is already in place to protect teens from exposure.
As for Dr. Glantz’s study, it really illustrates the problems with confusing correlation with causation. Yes, teens who reported ever using e-cigarettes were more likely to also report having used cigarettes, but since his study didn’t address chronology, there’s no evidence that those teens weren’t already smoking cigarettes and/or using the e-cigarettes as a means to cut down or quit. In fact, another study that followed e-cigarette users over the course of a year found that they tended to quit or reduce cigarette use and were less likely to resume smoking than non-users who quit. And while teen use of e-cigarettes is on the rise, cigarette smoking has declined.
All Gantz’s study did was show correlation. Teens who smoke are more likely to use e-cigarettes than non-smokers. They’re probably also more likely to use nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) like the patch and gum, but that isn’t an indication the NTRs caused the smoking habit. Gantz’s conclusion was really an assumption based on bias.
This assumption is more than false; it’s harmful, as is the legislation it seeks to justify. Contrary to the worries of hand-wringing politicians, the vast majority—85%—of people who use e-cigarettes actually do so to cut back on or quit smoking.
And advocates who argue that restrictions are necessary since we don’t know the long-term effects are missing the point that we do know the harmful long-term effects of actual cigarette use, which e-cigarettes can help greatly reduce. Former public health physician Dr. Nitzkin concluded that e-cigarettes are one of a number of alternatives that can reduce smoking-related illnesses and death by 98% or more and that rather than preventing smoking, restrictions will actually help cigarettes companies by removing competition. By making it harder for severely addicted individuals to quit in a way that works for them, these restrictions are more like to damage public health than to protect it.
E-cigarettes, like dolls with realistic figures, are an example of a social problem being addressed through peaceful innovation rather than forceful legislation. This may look suspicious to people who see government intervention as the solution to all problems. But government solutions are rarely optimal for all or even most involved, and as a culture, we need to be more open-minded to entrepreneurial alternatives and recast that suspicion where it belongs.