The growing popularity of e-cigarettes raises two issues for policymakers — one of them simple, the other more complicated.
E-cigarettes serve up nicotine extract in a vaporized form, cooking it without burning it. They deliver the same nicotine fix that comes from cigarettes, with the same smoking-like activity longtime smokers find so pleasurable, but there is no tobacco, no burning – and no smoke. A light vapor may be visible coming from users’ mouths, but it is odorless and, while there hasn’t been sufficient research to declare it harmless, its chemical composition bears no resemblance to secondhand smoke.
The first issue they pose involves the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, which is currently legal under state law. Whatever their benefits, e-cigarettes remain a nicotine delivery system, and nicotine is among the most addictive drugs on the market. Researchers say the younger you are, the more susceptible you are to its addictive properties. So few people become addicted to nicotine after age 25 that scientists sometimes refer to nicotine addiction as a “pediatric disease.”
The policy response to this should be a no-brainer: Minors should not be able to purchase addictive chemicals or the means to ingest them. Boston, Framingham (Mass.) and several other municipalities have already prohibited the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The state Legislature should do the same, and until it does, retailers should exercise common sense.
The second question is more challenging: Should use of e-cigarettes be allowed in restaurants, bars and places of business?
Boards of health in some communities are already considering whether to include e-cigarettes in their bans on public smoking, but they ought to ask themselves a few questions first. If the reason for prohibiting smoking cigarettes in public is to protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke, what’s the rationale for banning e-cigarettes? How is that different from banning nicotine gum?
The sole rationale for such prohibitions we’ve heard is that children might see adults using e-cigarettes and “get the wrong idea.” But policing the lifestyle choices of adults to protect kids from bad examples is not the job of municipal boards of health.
Some health officials have suggested prohibiting e-cigarettes because researchers don’t yet know whether they are harmful. But the default position ought to be that adults are free to make their own decisions unless there’s a good reason for government to interfere.
Boards of health, especially, must be guided by science, not personal opinions. Before they prohibit the use of e-cigarettes, they should think twice. Their responsibility is to protect the public health, not prohibit products they disapprove of.