Yesterday the Boston Public Health Commission voted to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in workplaces, including outdoor areas such as restaurant patios. It says it is simply "clos[ing] a loophole" by "treat[ing] e-cigarettes like tobacco products." But since e-cigarettes do not contain any tobacco and do not generate smoke (merely a propylene glycol vapor containing nicotine), that is a puzzling way to characterize the decision. The official justification for banning smoking in workplaces is protecting employees and other bystanders from the toxins and carcinogens generated when tobacco is burned. Let's leave aside the questions of how dangerous secondhand smoke really is and whether the government has any business regulating it on private property. In the absence of evidence that e-cigarettes are a hazard to other people, what possible justification is there for treating them the same as conventional cigarettes? I mean, they look like cigarettes, but surely that superficial resemblance is not enough for a scientifically grounded agency like the Boston Public Health Commission.

Or maybe it is. Here is the best the commission can do by way of justification: "The FDA found through laboratory testing that e-cigarettes contain toxic chemicals and carcinogens." What "toxic chemicals"? The only one the commission mentions is nicotine, which is not toxic at the levels ingested by e-cigarette users, let alone the infinitesimal levels in the air surrounding them. The FDA also found "dectectable levels" of diethylene glycol in one out of 18 e-cigarette cartridges it tested, probably due to a manufacturing defect that does not appear to be common. Condemning all e-cigarettes based on that one finding is like condemning all fruits and vegetables because they sometimes harbor pathogens. As for "carcinogens," the commission is referring to trace amounts of tobacco-specific nitrosamines, which are also found in nicotine replacement products that the FDA has approved as safe and effective. So much for the bystander protection rationale.

Even if we assume that the commission's real aim is to protect smokers from their own unhealthy choices by encouraging them to quit, its decision is perverse, since e-cigarettes can help them do that. Switching to e-cigarettes virtually eliminates the hazards posed by smoking. By making e-cigarettes less convenient to use, the commission makes them less appealing as an alternative to conventional cigarettes, thereby making it more likely that people will continue to smoke. Even by the collectivist, paternalistic standards of "public health" as it is currently understood, the e-cigarette ban is utterly irrational, driven by aesthetic and/or moralistic impulses that have nothing to do with science or with health.

Addendum: Bill Godshall of Smokefree Pennsylvania notes that Alameda, California, and Boise, Idaho, recently rejected proposals to cover e-cigarettes under municipal smoking bans.

[Thanks to Michael Graham for the tip.]