Los Angeles is poised to join Boston, New York, and Chicago in treating vaping like smoking, meaning that electronic cigarettes will be banned everywhere that conventional cigarettes are. Yesterday a committee approved an ordinance that would extend the city's restrictions on smoking to vaping, and the full city council is expected to follow suit next week. As in New York and Chicago, supporters of the ban, unable to cite any evidence that vaping poses a biological threat to bystanders, focus instead on the semiotic threat:
Lawmakers acted after Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said e-cigarettes threaten to make smoking socially acceptable after years of advocacy to discourage the habit. Young people who get hooked on the nicotine in e-cigarettes may then turn to tobacco use, he said.
"We don't want to risk e-cigarettes undermining a half century of successful tobacco control," he said….
"Even if it were determined later on that the emissions from e-cigarettes aren't dangerous to a bystander in an outside environment, the existence of devices like this…in public places does threaten to renormalize the behavior of smoking," [City Attorney Mike Feuer] said.
Fielding and Feuer worry that vaping, the whole point of which is to avoid the nuisance and hazards of dirty, disgusting, dangerous cigarettes. somehow will make smoking cool and popular again. Although there is no evidence to support that rather implausible fear, there is evidence that vaping helps smokers give up a habit that otherwise would impair their health and threaten their lives, as former Surgeon General Richard Carmona pointed out in the Los Angeles Daily News last week:
Published research suggests that e-cigarettes can play a significant role in tobacco harm reduction strategies, since they avoid the toxic byproducts of combustion while providing smokers with the nicotine they crave and the smoking rituals to which they have grown accustomed. Financial analysts opine that, within a decade, e-cigarette sales could overtake tobacco sales.
I recently joined the board of NJOY, the leading independent e-cigarette company, because its ambitions are even higher—to make obsolete the tobacco cigarette entirely.
A well-intentioned but scientifically unsupported effort like the current proposal could greatly impede the effort to defeat tobacco smoking. This regulation, if passed, would disincentivize smokers from switching to e-cigarettes, since many initially switch for reasons of convenience. It would also send the unintended message to smokers that e-cigarettes are as dangerous as tobacco smoking, with the result that many will simply continue to smoke their current toxic products.
Fielding acknowledges that "some say [e-cigarettes] help them quit smoking" but insists "the strength of scientific evidence to get smokers to quit is not there." Former smokers may think they've switched to vaping, in other words, but but what do they know? They probably have not even heard of the precautionary principle.