This week two major publications, both leaders in their respective spheres, have come out with articles surveying the electronic cigarette phenomenon, The Financial Times and Scientific American.
Neither article presents much of anything that will come as a surprise to those familiar with the product and the controversies swirling aA recurring theme in the fantasy life of e-cig prohibitionists is the idea that the products are offered in candy-like flavors as an advertising ploy targeted at young consumers.
It would seem that they imagine the e-cig marketers as trench-coated dirty-old-men stealthily lurking around playgrounds, lying in wait for nubile or callow youngsters for whom they can open their coats to reveal rows of candy canes, drugs, vaporizers, and yes, analogue cigarettes too – their top of the line product.
Candy flavors must have a special appeal for the little tykes, mustn’t they?
Let’s think about the psychology that the fantasy presupposes. A seventh grade boy in a hoodie, wearing his baseball cap with the visor pointed backwards, squinting because the sun hurts his unvisored eyes, constantly pulling up his baggy jeans, which are fashionably belted just below the buttocks, revealing a fetching pair of polka-dotted boxer shorts. This young man wants to be cool, and is willing to endure substantial discomfort to achieve that effect. A cigarette-like object dangles from his lip, giving him the air of a modern-day James Dean. Or Brad Pitt. Or Leo DiCaprio. Or Bruno Mars. “What flavor you vapin’?” asks the insouciant nymphet he is trying to impress. “Cotton Candy”?!!! “Bubble-Gum”?!!! “Tutti-Frutti”?!!! If you think so, “what are YOU smokin’?” Children who want to look like they’re smoking cigarettes are trying to act like adults. Not regress to their infantile pleasures. Coolness demands adult flavors. Not babyish ones.
This reveals a peculiar set of psychological blind spots that seem to afflict the prohibitionist mentality. The very idea that prohibition will work as a persuasive rhetorical method is another example of a similar myopia about the emotional life of our species, especially that of adolescents. Some readers may remember the song “Never Say No” from the popular Off-Broadway show The Fantasticks, sung by two clever fathers who have figured this out: “Why did the kids put beans in their ears? No one can hear with beans in their ears? After a while the reason appears. They did it ’cause we said ‘No!'” The dads proceed to prohibit what they want their kids to do, and everything works out fine. One could even argue that wearing a visor or belt in such as way as to neutralize their primary function are further instances of precisely the same emotional oddity of youth. Self-interest and survival instincts are motivators that do seem to break through the idiocies of jejune behavior (or as Woody Allen calls it in Play It Again, Sam, “jejunosity”), and it would seem that education about the dangers of smoking is having its effect, and reducing the numbers of young smokers.round it.
But their overviews afford us a chance to assess the attitudes of the public at this moment, particularly the attitudes of the segments of the public that these publications represent. The Financial Times comes closer to getting it right. The FT article, by Emma Jacobs and Duncan Robinson, begins by recounting the story of pioneering e-cig company Gamucci and its founders Umer Sheikh and his brother Taz. They took Hon Lik’s basic invention, marketed through Chinese company Ruyan (“like smoking”) and marketed it in the UK and elsewhere in the West after a few basic changes in technology.
Next we flash back to Herbert Gilbert’s original invention in 1963, which never got off the ground as a successfully marketed product. The article takes a look at the “muscling in” on the product by big tobacco, and covers the current uneasy relationship between Big Tobacco’s e-cigs and those fielded by small start-ups. While some of the smaller companies complain about “aggressive tactics”, others may hope to be bought out, says FT, since the payoff would be substantial. “Gamucci declines to comment on whether it has been targeted but says that remaining independent for a few more years would boost its sale price,” according to FT.
Turning to the debate among health advocacy groups, Jacobs and Robinson cover the debates between spokespersons of Corporate Accountability International (CAI) such as John Stewart, who emphasizes Big Tobacco’s interest in promoting “dual use” and in “re-glamorizing” smoking, and harm reduction proponents like Clive Bates, founder of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who is critical of the unsupported claim that e-cig use is a gateway to smoking.
Toward the end of the FT article, Jacobs and Robinson cover the vociferous participation of vapers themselves in the debate. This is one of the most significant new developments in the evolution of this controversy. The long period of non-regulation has resulted in the formation of a vaping community, a clearly defined and passionate group with a life-and-death interest in the outcome of the debate. This will surely affect the further shape of the e-cigarette phenomenon. In the Scientific American article, Tom Whalen asks the question “Are e-cigs truly safe?” even though a concept as imprecise as “true safety” would seem to be a bit fuzzy for a scientific “big hitter” like SA. He seems to mean “100% risk free” by this, a standard of safety that e-cig opponents demand for the product, although in real life none of us require this standard of safety from everyday things like automotive and air travel, fun at the beach, or household products.
The article repeats the litany we all know by now: nicotine is addictive (whether or not it is harmful), e-cigs might make people want to smoke again (why?), second hand MY BAR Banana vapor might be marginally more harmful than the air in any major city (but probably isn’t), or e-cigs might lure teens into their beloved practice of trying dangerous things.
The author does concede that, on the other hand, “greater restrictions might hurt folks who are trying to forgo conventional—and more dangerous—tobacco products.”
The SA article discusses the legal background in the US, talking about the court’s ruling in 2010 in the lawsuit between Njoy and the FDA, and goes on to a brief rundown of the chemistry of vaping. It runs through a list of slight dangers that might be attendant on the inhaling of propylene glycol (harmless when eaten).