Since e-cigarettes aren’t a threat to non-smokers, let people puff away
I’M SITTING at a bar and the guy next to me pulls out a cigarette and starts smoking. I’m inwardly seething, wondering what to do. Ignore it? Complain to the bartender and let him do the dirty work? Or confront the smoker myself? And if I do, then what - words exchanged, perhaps a fight?
And then I realize the smoke isn’t bothering me at all. Indeed, I can’t even smell it.
I lean over.
“What is that you’re smoking?’’
“That,’’ it turns out, is an electronic cigarette. The smoke I was looking at was water vapor - steam - and nothing else. The device itself is a small marvel, containing flavored liquid and some nicotine, and it delivers the taste of a cigarette - and the drug - as the user inhales. To complete the effect, the tip even glows. It is, it occurs to me, an excellent way to bring about a truce between those who smoke and those who don’t - a way for us, once again, to occupy the same places in bars, restaurants, and ball fields.
So why won’t Boston let that happen?
Smoking bans are a relatively recent phenomenon. Boston was one of the early adopters, putting in a full-scale ban - covering almost all workplaces, including restaurants and bars - in 1998. Today, 26 states have bans and the US Centers for Disease Control expects that by 2020 all states will have put one in place. And for good reason: one’s right to smoke stops when it hits someone else’s lungs.
Sometimes the bans have been framed as a workers’ rights matter - tobacco fumes in effect create a hazardous work environment. No one, the argument runs, should have to risk their health merely to wait tables. Other times the bans are a weighing of rights. Some patrons smoke, some don’t, and as the number of nonsmokers has grown it’s easier to make those who do give way to those who don’t (usually by just letting them sneak outside for a moment to get a fix). Either way, the bans are deservedly popular. Even some smokers like them; they may not mind inhaling their own smoke, but don’t want to breath someone else’s.
This has all come at a cost to smokers, however, who find themselves increasingly pushed aside and isolated. One doesn’t have to be an enthusiast of smoking to recognize there is some legitimacy in smokers’ complaints that these various bans are in some ways an infringement of their rights.
But the logic for all of those bans plainly disappears if the smoker poses no harm to the non-smoker. That is what makes a recent proposal by Boston’s Public Health Commission so puzzling. Electronic cigarettes are so new that they are largely unregulated and the Commission is now leaping into the gap. (Nothing, one suspects, so quickens the pulse of a regulator as the prospect of new terrain.) One proposal - to limit sales to adults - makes sense; nicotine is a drug after all. But another proposal - to treat electronic cigarettes the same as the tobacco-stuffed kind - is nonsense. By their very nature, electronic cigarettes pose no hazard to anyone except, of course, the person choosing to use them (and, since electronic cigarettes have none of the cancer-causing tars and other byproducts of tobacco, that hazard is far less). So what is the commission’s rationale?
I suspect it’s just a back-door effort to ban adults from smoking. An outright prohibition would still generate much resistance (and, as we have learned from Prohibition and the war on drugs, would ultimately carry negative consequences far greater than the benefits of any ban). But by sharply limiting where adults can use electronic cigarettes, it is in effect trying to accomplish the same thing.
Granted, we all wish people would live their lives as we wished. Personally, I’d ban motorcycles, skydiving, and mountain climbing - dangerous and worthless pursuits all. But the hallmark of a genuinely free society is that we permit people to engage in those and other risky activities as long as they don’t impinge on others’ freedoms. If electronic cigarettes pose no threat to me - and apparently they don’t - then you should be allowed to sit beside me and puff away.
Originally published in the Boston Globe.