A Case of the Vapers
New York City’s puritanical government has banned public smoking of e-cigarettes.


Andrew Stuttaford

What was it again that Mencken once wrote? Google, enter, click. Ah yes, it was this: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

On Thursday, the New York City Council made room in its legislative agenda — it was also busy commissioning a study on polystyrene foam — to pass by a vote of 43–8 (that lopsided majority an indicator of idiocy afoot) a measure that will, once Mayor Bloomberg signs it (oh, he will) shortly prohibit the vaping (that’s the word) of e-cigarettes anyplace where smoking is now banned in Gotham, bars, restaurants, offices, parks, the beach, you name it. Technically speaking, the ban will take effect as an amendment to the city’s Smoke-Free Air Act. That e-cigarettes do not emit any smoke was an irrelevance.

To vape is to inhale a vapor from a plastic facsimile of a cigarette, battery-powered, bought for $10 at a local store, and good, it is claimed, for 400 puffs. The business end is fashioned to look like a filter. In another nod to nostalgia, the tip typically glows as the user inhales. It’s not the real thing, nothing like. Plastic is neither leaf nor paper. It holds no memories of that old bar down on the Lower East Side, that conversation once upon when. There’s no tobacco, no combustion, none of the warmth, none of the evocative transience, none of the mouth-feel of cigarette or cigar, and it looks just a bit dumb. Walk into Rick’s with an e-cigarette and Rick would laugh. Then again, Bogie died at 57.

Whatever the aesthetics of e-cigarettes, as nicotine-delivery systems go, they are a lot safer than the cancer sticks of old. There’s no carbon monoxide, no tar, very little, in fact, of tobacco smoking’s carcinogenic stew. To be sure, the Food and Drug Administration has detected tobacco-specific nitrosamines (a carcinogen) in the e-cigarette cartridges that contain the treats to come. A 2009 study revealed about the same quantity of TSNAs in cartridges as might be found in a nicotine patch, a total about one-nine-hundredth of the level found inside Joe Camel. The vaper (I know, I know) will inhale an even smaller portion, a tiny fraction of a minuscule amount. Furthermore, TSNAs were the only carcinogens detected in this study. Boston University’s Dr. Michael Siegel, a 25-year veteran of tobacco-control work (and a Centers for Disease Control alumnus), has noted that smokers of conventional cigarettes may inhale maybe 40 other carcinogens, not to speak of “thousands of [other] chemicals.”

It is true that at the end of November a study by Holland’s National Institute for National Health (RIVM) triggered a few headlines like “Dutch sound alarm about possible risks of e-cigarettes” (Reuters), but within the body of that Reuters story there was this: “The institute said it was concerned about a lack of evidence on the possible health effects of e-cigarettes…”

As a reminder: Don’t know is not the same as know.

The RIVM did note that the dread nicotine was involved and referred to reports of nausea and throat irritation by some users. Indeed, it recommended (Reuters writes) that “as a precaution [e-cigarettes] should not be used by pregnant women or in the vicinity of children.” For a health warning nowadays, this is on the mild side. The scientific concerns it reflects are not enough to justify a heavy-handed ban of the type now headed New York City’s way.

But what about the antifreeze? This substance, more happily associated with autos than lungs, has seeped into the e-cigarette debate, setting up a scare or 50. The truth is that the FDA found some diethylene glycol — an important ingredient in antifreeze — in just one of the cartridges surveyed in the 2009 study, a dismaying result but almost certainly a rogue finding. E-cigarettes generally do contain, however, a base of propylene glycol to “hold” the nicotine and any added flavoring. Propylene glycol is used in antifreeze, but as a kinder, gentler alternative to its rough diethylene cousin, particularly when there is any danger of contact with food. As is explained in the compound’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry toxicological profile (September 1997), “the [FDA] has classified propylene glycol as ‘generally recognized as safe,’ which means that it is acceptable for use in flavorings, drugs, and cosmetics, and as a direct food additive.” Move along, there’s nothing to see here.

As an alternative to propylene glycol, some e-cigarettes use vegetable glycerin as their base. This common food additive will affect their taste, but not your health.

And so far as the ingredients lurking in an e-cigarette are concerned, that ought to be about it. This is not, of course, a reason for arguing that research on these products should cease, or that stricter quality control should be opposed. Nor is it a claim that e-cigarettes are risk-free. They may, for example, inhibit lung capacity, at least temporarily. Beyond that and those pesky TSNAs, there is also the matter that most e-cigarettes will (as the astute folk at the RIVM had noticed) be used to deliver nicotine, a potentially addictive substance — albeit one that has been given up by tens of millions. Then again, much of nicotine’s famously powerful addictiveness can be attributed to the fact that it is being delivered via tobacco, a medium with naturally occurring monoamine oxidase inhibitors that seem to have a great deal to do (it’s a long story) with the difficulty of quitting smoking. Divorced from its leafy accomplice, nicotine is not that addictive, nor under those circumstances is it, to quote John Britton, who leads the tobacco advisory group for Britain’s Royal College of Physicians, even a “particularly hazardous” drug.