SACRAMENTO — The basic fallback position in any free society is that people should be allowed to do things unless those activities can be shown to harm others. Basically, the burden of proof should always rest with the people who want to ban stuff.
That's why it's dismaying that the San Diego City Council recently joined other local governments in voting to impose the same ban on electronic cigarettes that currently applies to traditional combustible tobacco products. The state legislature has mulled, but not approved, similar legislation.
"I'm concerned that the science that goes along with this is very new," Councilman Scott Sherman said. "But we should probably err on the side of caution."
There is no evidence that this new type of cigarette is bad for "smokers" or for people standing near them. But these days, if officials are in doubt about something, they ban it anyway — just in case. The San Diego vote was unanimous, which suggests this mindset transcends party and politics.
E-cigarettes do not create smoke. They are vaporizers that provide the user with nicotine, but without all the carcinogens found in tobacco. Most of us have stood near people who are puffing on these battery operated devices and there's no obvious smell or annoying side effects. The effects on the "smoker," however, are up for debate.
"(E-cigarettes) are just as important for public health as childhood vaccines, antibiotics, sewer treatment and water treatment," said one anti-smoking activist to Reason magazine, which surely is an overstatement. But there's much hope that many smokers will switch from a deadly product to a more benign one.
And some studies back up such optimism. The American Council on Science and Health concluded in 2006 that e-cigarettes are "at least 98 percent safer than smoking … and is not a gateway to smoking cigarettes." It attributed their popularity in Sweden in part to that country's particularly low smoking rate.
Eight years later, there's nothing to really debunk that. The University of California San Francisco produced a recent study, touted by advocates for e-cigarette bans, that refutes the idea that these vaporizers will save countless lives.
"Our bottom line is, at the moment, it doesn't seem like e-cigarettes are having a big impact on the population in terms of quitting," a study co-author told the San Francisco Chronicle. This criticism of e-cigarettes is not that they cause any harm or create any equivalent of "second-hand smoke," only that they haven't caused as many smokers as expected to give up regular cigarettes. Many people smoke both.
It's one thing to ban cigarettes in public given that smokers impose unwanted carcinogens and odors on others. It's understandable to want to stamp out cigarette smoking given its well-documented dangers. But elected officials are restricting a product that isn't demonstrably harmful or annoying simply because it may not be as helpful as expected. Isn't that unreasonable?
The zeal to regulate comes not only in cities and state capitols. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)now is considering national regulations to control e-cigs. The FDA's anti-nicotine approach is fairly clear. It previously warned about these e-cigarettes and trace levels of toxins in their vapor even though we're talking about miniscule amounts of commonly found chemicals.
One of the biggest concerns is that e-cigarettes' widespread availability could possibly lead young people to begin smoking them and then move on to tobacco products. Few people argue with limits on sales to minors, but this argument is based on what-ifs.
E-cig backers respond that anti-tobacco forces have such a vested interest in stopping anything that even smacks of smoking, they aren't going to let alternatives such as e-cigarettes become commonplace despite the evidence. "Their benefits as a replacement therapy outweigh any negative effects they've found so far," said Matthew Glans, a policy analyst for the conservative Heartland Institute.
Maybe the "so far" is the key phrase. But what does it say about the state of our free society when officials are so eager to severely limit a product before any ill effects are found? Why the rush to ban things?