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No tobacco, no matter: major U.S. cities proposing bans on e-cigarettes


Chicago, New York and other major American cities are considering proposals to prohibit e-cigarettes in public places. The move is another step by authorities to use public health as an excuse to treat us as less than autonomous individuals. 

About 4 million Americans use battery-powered cigarettes, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association. The growing use has got some politicians worked up. New York City councilman James Gennaro, one of the sponsors of the city's proposed ban, says "We see these cigarettes are really starting to proliferate, and it's unacceptable. I get reports of people smoking cigarettes in public libraries. Certainly, they're becoming more common in restaurants and bars."

The proposed bans essentially treat electronic cigarettes the same as tobacco ones, even though there is no evidence that e-cigarettes cause cancer. The rationale for prohibiting tobacco cigarettes in public spaces is primarily based on the claimed dangers of second-hand smoke, but it is not possible to make such an argument with e-cigs. But that hasn't stopped some people. Erika Seward of the American Lung Association deploys the precautionary principle in support of the ban: "We don't want to have people now exposed to e-cigarette second-hand emissions until we know more about them." In other words, ban until we can prove they are 100 percent safe. But that is not how things are supposed to work in a free society, where you are allowed to act freely unless you cause harm to others.

E-cigarettes do contain nicotine, which is, for some, part of the appeal - they can get the nicotine buzz, and other pleasurable aspects from smoking, without worrying about a risk from cancer. A minority partake of e-cigarettes because they are trying to wean themselves off tobacco. As it happens, if you are going to ban e-cigarettes, you might as well ban nicotine patches or gum (not that I'm advocating that... treating e-cigarettes as a medical product is problematic as well).

Another argument rolled out by the proponents of the ban is to protect children. Gennaro said that children were getting the message that smoking is socially acceptable. But this hiding behind kids is one of the oldest claims of prohibitionists over the years. There is no reason why adults should be denied the right to enjoy something just because it's not appropriate for children. The same argument could be made about alcohol: how can we allow the kids to watch us lift a bottle of beer? Or to extend the analogy to e-cigarettes: how can we allow adults to drink from bottles that look like they have beer in them?

As it happens, most people simply enjoy the experience of "vaping".  And so far, it seems that most patrons of restaurants and bars are relatively relaxed about it. There is really no need for killjoy politicians to butt in.

For more on what's driving today's trend towards paternalism, see my recent essay in spiked.

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