H.L. Mencken famously defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” He may have been describing contemporary antismoking activists, that dour group of fuss budgets continuously on the prowl for new ways to make life somewhat less bearable by limiting the alternatives available to grown adults.
An E-cigarette is smoked by an unidentified woman. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters, via Corbis)
Extremely, the latest push from tobacco eliminationists doesn’t involve real smoking, which is already driven out of cultivated society more thoroughly than Rev. Jeremiah Wright sermons, early David Allan Coe records, and Three’s Firm-era gay jokes blended. But it does lay bare the prohibitionist attitude and its fixation on scrubbing the earth clean of any behaviour or perspective the crusader deems unacceptable.
This time, the buttinskys are striving to douse the dreaded e-cigarette, a system that provides a nicotine hit for an individual without bothering or endangering anyone else. E-cigarettes use replaceable cartridges where nicotine or flavors are warmed, vaporized, and inhaled (users are called “vapers”). Some e-cigarettes look like standard cancer sticks and the others look more like something from a bad Sylvester Stallone picture set in the longer term. Questions of trend aside, they aren’t just a safer way for smokers to find the nicotine they crave, they may be seemingly as safe as milk (well, pasteurized milk, anyway, and assuming you’re not lactose-intolerant).
Critics warn that trace quantities of bad stuff can be found in e-cigarettes’ vapour, but that’s not necessarily cause for concern, much less prohibition. As a fresh overview of the literature on e-cigarettes from Drexel University’s Igor Burstyn concludes, “Current information don’t suggest that exposures to vapors from contaminants in electronic cigarettes merit a concern. There aren’t any known toxicological synergies among compounds within the aerosol, and mixture of the contaminants doesn’t present a risk to health.” Actually, the inability to show proof of harm was one reason the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s 2010 bid to command e-cigarettes as a “drugdelivery apparatus” failed in court. Burstyn notes more there is even less cause to be concerned with secondhand fumes, which are by definition even less concentrated that what the vaper sucks down. His chief concern is the fact that users knowingly select whether they’re getting nicotine or not.
As Michael Siegel, who teaches at Boston University’s College of Public Health, wrote in a recent Ny Times’ disagreement on e-cigarettes, despite evidence that e-cigarettes reduce overall harm from smoking, “many anti-smoking groups oppose these goods as they’re blinded by ideology: they discover that it’s hard, maybe impossible, to back a behaviour that seems like smoking, though it is literally saving people’s lives…What’s not to like?”
Anti smoking groups find it difficult, maybe impossible, to endorse a behaviour that seems like smoking, although it is literally saving people’s lives.
Well, lots, it turns out. E-cigarettes are the subject of an evergrowing list of bans, prohibitions, and pro opprobrium (only read a number of the other members because Times’ argument). As always, New-york – a town once called “Fun City” that still wants to pretend it’s tougher than the rib-eyes available in the few remaining Tad’s Steaks in Times Sqaure – is leading the charge against e-cigarettes. As Gothamist reviews, Michael Bloomberg is “softly working…to enact a sweeping ban on flavored e-cigs.”
The exact same impulse is afoot in less trendy portions of the nation. Illinois has prohibited e-cigarette sales to Massachusetts and teens is contemplating legislation that will ban offering free samples or utilizing the devices everywhere that tobacco is already verboten. Regardless of the lack of second hand smoke, school districts around the state have lumped in e-cigarettes with banned tobacco products on campuses, along with the Federal Aviation Administration has blocked their use on commercial flights.
In one sense, you’ve got to admire anti smoking activists as well as their willingness to always seek out new fires to put out. Such as the March of Dimes, which scrambled to get a new cause once polio was successfully eliminated (and found one within the types of preventing premature births and birth defects), the movement is actually a victim of its own success. In the aftermath of increasingly high handed bans, taxes, and regulations, smoking is everywhere in retreat. In the mid1960s, over 40% of Americans smoked, compared to less than 20 percent these days. Yet it’s no coincidence that the biggest decreases in smoking rates came in the early decades after the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking told Americans what they already knew: cigarettes were called “coffin nails” and “cancer sticks” for good goddamned reasons.
Informational campaigns about the terrible health effects of smoking, together with limitations on marketing and other broad-based ethnic trends that valorized being in shape and not stinking like an ash tray went a long way to developing a society. People really respond to argument, sense, and persuasion. Who knew?
But while the percentage of Americans who smoke has remained fairly trapped in the high teens and low twenties, the antismoking movement has turned to increasingly paternalistic, dictatorial, and infantilizing measures to achieve its targets. From statewide bans on smoking in a growing number of places to the censoring of marketing terms like light and moderate that have ushered in an age of childishly color-coded cigarette packs to strategies for scrubbing smoking in films and TV-SHOWS, there’s no logical stopping point for treating people as moral defectives unable of making our own choices.
Certainly, taking a page from the Stalinera Soviet Union, prohibitionists even managed to erase omnipresent smokes dangling from the lips of artist Jackson Pollock and bluesman Robert Johnson in iconic images used for postage stamps (would that activists had been half as successful at curbing public urination, Pollock’s other signature move).
And now, the prohibitionists are dealing with e-cigarettes because… because… because… smoking tobacco is bad for you. And they don’t believe you must determine the way to live your own life.
Which reminds me of a different Mencken quote about those who want to command our picks: “The only guarantee of the Bill of Rights which continues to have any force and effect is the one prohibiting quartering troops on citizens in time of peace.” These days, even that could be available. However there’s no question that in a nanny state, all of us- even those of us who do not smoke tobacco or puff on e-cigarettes- are all treated like children incapable of making our own selections.