H.L. Mencken famously defined puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." He might have been describing contemporary anti-smoking activists, that dour band of fuss-budgets constantly on the prowl for new ways to make life slightly less bearable by limiting the choices available to grown adults.
Incredibly, the latest push from tobacco eliminationists doesn't involve actual smoking, which has already been driven out of polite society more thoroughly than Rev. Jeremiah Wright sermons, early David Allan Coe records, and Three's Company-era gay jokes combined. But it does lay bare the prohibitionist mindset and its fixation on scrubbing the planet clean of any behavior or attitude the crusader deems unacceptable.
This time, the buttinskys are trying to douse the dreaded e-cigarette, a device that supplies a safe nicotine hit to the user without bothering or endangering anybody else. E-cigarettes use replaceable cartridges in which nicotine or flavors are heated, vaporized, and inhaled (users are called "vapers"). Some e-cigarettes look like conventional cancer sticks and others look more like something from a bad Sylvester Stallone movie set in the near future. Questions of fashion aside, they are not just a safer way for smokers to get the nicotine they crave, they are apparently as safe as milk (well, pasteurized milk, anyway, and assuming you're not lactose intolerant).
Critics warn that trace amounts of bad stuff can be found in e-cigarettes' vapor, but that is not necessarily cause for concern, much less prohibition. As a new review of the literature on e-cigarettes from Drexel University's Igor Burstyn concludes, "Current data do not indicate that exposures to vapors from contaminants in electronic cigarettes warrant a concern. There are no known toxicological synergies among compounds in the aerosol, and mixture of the contaminants does not pose a risk to health." In fact, the inability to show proof of harm was one of the reasons the Food and Drug Administration's 2010 bid to control e-cigarettes as a "drug-delivery device" failed in court. Burstyn notes further there is even less reason to be concerned with second-hand fumes, which are by definition even less concentrated than what the vaper sucks down. His main concern is that users knowingly choose whether they're getting nicotine or not.
As Michael Siegel, who teaches at Boston University's School of Public Health, wrote in a recent New York Times' debate on e-cigarettes, despite evidence that e-cigarettes reduce overall harm from smoking "many anti-smoking groups oppose these products because they are blinded by ideology: they find it difficult, if not impossible, to endorse a behavior that looks like smoking, even though it is literally saving people's lives….What's not to like?"
Well, plenty, it turns out. E-cigarettes are the subject of an ever-growing list of bans, prohibitions, and expert opprobrium (just read some of the other participants in that Times' debate). As always, New York – a town once called "Fun City" that still likes to pretend it's tougher than the rib-eyes for sale at the few remaining Tad's Steaks in Times Square – is leading the charge against e-cigarettes. As Gothamist reports, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is "quietly working…to enact a sweeping ban on flavored e-cigs."
The same impulse is afoot in less trendy parts of the country. Illinois has banned e-cigarette sales to teens and Massachusetts is considering legislation that would ban giving away free samples or using the devices anywhere that tobacco is already verboten. Despite the lack of second-hand smoke, school districts around the country have lumped in e-cigarettes with banned tobacco products on campuses, and the Federal Aviation Administration has blocked their use on commercial flights.
In one sense, you've got to admire anti-smoking activists and their willingness to constantly look for new fires to put out. Like the March of Dimes, which scrambled for a new cause once polio was effectively eradicated (and found one in the all-encompassing categories of preventing birth defects and premature births), the anti-smoking movement is a victim of its own success. In the wake of increasingly high-handed bans, taxes, and regulations, smoking is everywhere in retreat. In the mid-1960s, over 40 percent 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 consequences of smoking, along with restrictions on advertising and other broad-based cultural trends that valorized being in shape and not stinking like an ashtray went a long way to creating a smoke-free society. People actually respond to logic, argument, and persuasion. Who knew?
But as the percentage of Americans who smoke has stayed relatively stuck in the high teens and low twenties, the anti-smoking movement has turned to increasingly paternalistic, dictatorial, and infantilizing measures to achieve its goals. From statewide bans on smoking in more and more places to the censoring of marketing terms such as light and mild that have ushered in an age of childishly color-coded cigarette packs to plans for scrubbing smoking in movies and TV shows, there's no logical stopping point for treating us all as moral defectives incapable of making our own choices.
Indeed, taking a page from the Stalin-era Soviet Union, prohibitionists even managed to erase omnipresent cigarettes 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 taking on e-cigarettes because… because… because… smoking tobacco is bad for you. And they don't think you should decide how to live your life.
Which reminds me of a different Mencken quote about those who would control our choices: "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 may be up for grabs. But there's no question that in a nanny state, all of us – even those of us who don't smoke tobacco or puff on e-cigarettes – are all treated like children incapable of making our own choices.
A version of this ran at The Daily Beast on August 25, 2013. Read it there.