Vaper Madness

by Andrew Stuttaford

 The New York Times’s Matt Richtel reports on a new menace sloshing through the land:

The drug is nicotine, in its potent, liquid form — extracted from tobacco and tinctured with a cocktail of flavorings, colorings and assorted chemicals to feed the fast-growing electronic cigarette industry. These “e-liquids,” the key ingredients in e-cigarettes, are powerful neurotoxins. Tiny amounts, whether ingested or absorbed through the skin, can cause vomiting and seizures and even be lethal. A teaspoon of even highly diluted e-liquid can kill a small child.

 Ah, the children. You just knew that those pint-sized victims-in-waiting were going to make an appearance.

And not just once (read the whole thing and you will see what I mean)

Thankfully, and as usual when it comes to this sort of topic, Reason’s Jacob Sullum arrives on the scene, draining the hysteria and adding commonsense, beginning by noting that the only actual death that the New York Times cites is of somebody who committed suicide by injecting himself with the stuff. Sad and all that, but…

The Times also notes that “reports of accidental poisonings, notably among children, are soaring” increasing “300 percent” from 2012 to 2013.

Jacob:

 Another way of putting that: The number of accidental poisoning reports related to e-cigarette fluid increased from about 338 in 2012 to 1,351 in 2013. None of these poisonings was fatal, and most (73 percent) were not serious enough to require hospital treatment. In 2012, by comparison, 311,347  poisoning reports involved analgesics, 221,314 involved cosmetics, 193,802 involved cleaning substances, 96,997 involved anthistamines, 88,694 involved pesticides, 68,168 involved vitamins, and 49,374 involved plants. So if “e-liquids pose a significant risk to public health,” as Richtel says, the risk posed by common products such as aspirin, window cleaner, and bug spray is gargantuan.

 Richtel concedes that the nicotine levels of “most” e-cigarette cartridges “range between 1.8 percent and 2.4 percent [by volume], concentrations that can cause sickness, but rarely death, in children.” But he claims “higher concentrations, like 10 percent or even 7.2 percent, are widely available on the Internet.” Contrary to Richtel’s implication, 10 percent is higher than 7.2 percent. But never mind. How common are e-cigarette cartridges with nicotine concentrations of 7.2 percent or more? Of the 13 “Top E-Cig Brands for 2014″ picked by by SmokeFreeVCU.org, none offers cartridges that strong. The strongest fluid sold by 11 of the 13 companies is 2.4 percent or lower. Vapor Zone offers 3.6 percent.  White Cloud sells cartridges in a “Double Extra” strength aimed at the heaviest smokers. These cartridges, which the company describes as “the strongest in the industry,” contain 5.4 percent nicotine. Richtel cites two examples of 10 percent solutions, both involving large quantities sold by wholesalers, presumably to customers who dilute the fluid before selling it to consumers.

… Richtel does raise some legitimate concerns. He worries that bottles of e-cigarette fluid are “kept casually around the house” and that children “may be drawn to their bright colors and fragrant flavorings.” Adults obviously should keep e-cigarette liquid, like any other potentially dangerous substance, away from small children. But Richtel seems determined to portray this particular hazard, which by his own account has not caused a single accidental death, as fundamentally scarier than familiar household products that account for many more poisonings. Perhaps that is because e-cigarettes are relatively new. Or perhaps Richtel, like many activists and public health officials, is  offended by the superficial resemblance between vaping and smoking, the very thing that makes e-cigarettes such a promising harm reduction tool. Either way, his reaction is not rational.

Indeed it is not. The bizarre and potentially murderous response to (life-saving) ecigarettes on the part of those who believe they know best what’s best for you and for me has been a classic demonstration of the way that the once entirely legitimate effort to warn consumers about the dangers of tobacco has degenerated into a jihad designed principally to empower true believers, and to give them the ability to proclaim their moral superiority, not only to others, but to themselves. And rationality can go hang.