The first time Tom Kiklas saw an electronic cigarette, he recalls, "I couldn't stand it....I thought, 'I don't want to be involved in this.' I'm an anti-smoking kind of guy."

But after Kiklas realized that electronic cigarettes, a.k.a. e-cigarettes, deliver nicotine without tobacco or combustion products, thereby eliminating virtually all of the health hazards associated with smoking, he was comfortable becoming media relations director for inLife, one of the companies that sell the devices in the United States. Unfortunately, many anti-smoking activists and public health officials are stuck in that first stage of visceral antipathy toward anything that resembles cigarettes, an emotional reaction that could prove deadly for smokers.

Last week the House of Representatives approved a bill that authorizes the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products. Lest anyone think that cigarettes will be safer as a result, the bill prohibits manufacturers from mentioning FDA regulation, saying "consumers are likely to be confused and misled" if they know about it.

Meanwhile, supporters of the bill, which the Senate will consider later this year, are demanding that the FDA ban e-cigarettes, a potentially life-saving alternative for smokers, as unauthorized drug delivery devices. Last month Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who brags that he is "one of the Senate's leaders in protecting Americans from the dangers of smoking," urged the FDA to take e-cigarettes off the market "until they are proven safe." The next day, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids applauded Lautenberg's position.

Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, did not. "This is about as idiotic and irrational an approach as I have ever seen in my 22 years in tobacco control and public health," he wrote on his blog. "A public policy maker who touts himself as being a champion of the public's health as well as some of the leading national health advocacy organizations are demanding that we ban what is clearly a much safer cigarette than those on the market, but that we allow, protect, approve, and institutionalize the really toxic ones."

Introduced by the Chinese company Ruyan in 2004, e-cigarettes produce water vapor containing nicotine and the food additive propylene glycol. The tip of the battery-powered "cigarette" lights up when a user sucks on it, and the vapor looks like smoke, but it dissipates immediately and contains none of the toxins and carcinogens that are generated when tobacco burns.

Given the enormous differences between this vapor and tobacco smoke, the companies that sell e-cigarettes online and from shopping mall kiosks are on firm ground in advertising them as safer alternatives to conventional cigarettes that can be used in places where smoking is banned. The arguments of e-cigarette opponents, by contrast, reek of red herrings.

The critics warn that nicotine is addictive, that it may contribute to cardiovascular problems, and that smokers may use e-cigarettes as way of coping with smoking bans, continuing their habits instead of quitting. All of these objections also apply to the nicotine gum, patches, sprays, and inhalers the FDA has approved as safe and effective smoking cessation tools.

E-cigarettes are less expensive than those products and may be more appealing to smokers looking for an experience that's closer to the real thing. Although they have not been subject to the sort of rigorous testing the FDA demands for new drugs, the drug they contain is not new. It's the same one delivered, in a much dirtier manner, by the cigarettes that the government says kill 400,000 Americans every year.

"The standard for lower-risk products for use by current smokers," argues the American Association of Public Health Physicians, "should be the hazard posed by cigarettes, not a pharmaceutical safety standard." Telling smokers they may not use e-cigarettes until they're approved by the FDA is like telling a floundering swimmer not to climb aboard a raft because it might have a leak.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.