E-cigs Under Fire, Despite Likely Benefits

Anti-vaping campaign is more about ideology than public health.


After I began to occasionally puff on cigars while arguing politics and sipping bourbon with friends, I researched the potential health effects of this habit (the cigars, not the political arguments or booze). Much information seemed designed to scare aficionados, rather than to provide a dispassionate review of the facts.

Some studies assumed smokers inhaled the stogies and lit up several a day — rather than one every couple weeks. Activists seemed more interested in changing behavior than helping us make informed decisions. I've seen the same dynamic with marijuana and weight issues. Now we're seeing it with e-cigarettes — electronic devices that heat up nicotine-infused liquid to create an inhalable vapor.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently touted a study showing that although e-cigs don't burn tobacco, the vapor has "high levels of formaldehyde," which is a cancer-causing chemical. News reports spotlighted a glaring flaw — those levels only are dangerous if the e-cigs heat the liquid to unrealistically high temperatures.

Even the staunchly anti-vaping American Cancer Society argues, "There is no scientific evidence that e-cigarettes are a safe substitute for traditional cigarettes or an effective smoking cessation tool." But if there were scientific evidence that e-cigs actually are dangerous, the society surely would be publicizing it.

Now because something isn't proven to be totally safe, the society and others are pressuring the government to limit e-cigs' use. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has sponsored SB 140, which would subject e-cigs to the same smoking rules as cigarettes. Currently, restaurants and workplaces are free to decide whether or not to allow them (imagine that!). E-cig sales already are off-limits to children.

Leno-style restrictions were bolstered by the California Department of Public Health, which last month released a report that called for more study to determine e-cigs' health effects over the long term, but declared they "are not harmless."

State health officials let on to what this anti-vaping campaign is about: They are concerned e-cigarettes will "re-normalize smoking behavior." That's the same argument coming from the cancer society – fear that the perceived safety of e-cigs compared to tobacco products will "entice young people into trying traditional cigarettes." But that's a behavioral concern rather than a scientific one.

Are these health fears overblown?

"Overblown is putting it mildly," responded Jacob Sullum, health writer for the libertarian Reason magazine. "Health hazards to 'vapers,' let alone bystanders, are completely speculative and unverified. … (T)he aerosol produced by e-cigarettes is much less dangerous than tobacco smoke, because it contains very few of the same substances, and the chemicals they sometimes have in common are at much lower levels in the former than in the latter."

Critics of vaping make snide comments about Big Tobacco getting into the business. I'm no fan of the tobacco industry, but what companies would one expect to sell products marketed to smokers? Critics of vaping could slow a potential health opportunity, as people switch from an unquestionably dangerous habit to one that is less dangerous.

E-cigs are not harmless, argues Stephanie Winn McCorkle, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in Sacramento. She says it should be up to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine whether e-cigs are a "cessation device." In her view, e-cigs do more harm than good: "We're saying, you should just quit. There are plenty of proven cessation programs."

Well, that's nice. But other people might have a different take. I decided to switch from the monthly cigar to an occasional e-cig – mainly to reduce the stench. Instead of forcing one choice on everyone, maybe legislators, regulators and health activists should provide the best-possible information and trust adults to make up their own minds.