It’s been 50 years since the Surgeon General linked tobacco smoking with cancer and other diseases. Amid widespread bans on public smoking, jurisdictions such as New York City are expanding the bans to include fake smoke -- the battery-heated glycol vapor produced by e-cigarettes. Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn defended the city’s new restrictions, saying e-cigarettes “normalize” the appearance of lighting up. Bob speaks to Amy Fairchild, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, to ask if you can really ban an image?
BOB GARFIELD: It’s been 50 years since the Surgeon General first linked tobacco smoking with cancer and other diseases, launching decades of government activism on behalf of public health. Now, amid widespread bans on public smoking, jurisdictions such as New York City are expanding the bans to include fake smoke, the battery-heated glycol vapor produced by e-cigarettes.
CORRESPONDENT: It’s a victory for many health advocates who say you shouldn’t have to breathe in someone’s e-cig vapor, which may or may not be harmful.
GREG GUTFELD/FOX NEWS: These smokes heat up liquid nicotine and they admit a harmless water vapor. It affects no one but the smoker. If you ban this, you should ban teapots and clouds.
CHRISTINE QUINN: It’s not the norm anymore. Very few people feel uncomfortable, I think, now saying, you can’t smoke in public. We don’t want to step backwards in that.
BOB GARFIELD: The last voice was former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, defending the city’s new restrictions on so-called “vaping,” which she fears will reverse decades of public health gains by, once again, normalizing the appearance of lighting up. But can you really ban an image?
Amy Fairchild is a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. She wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “The Case for Tolerating E-Cigarettes.” Amy, welcome to the show.
AMY FAIRCHILD: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, sometimes it’s not a duck. And e-cigarettes aren’t cigarettes, right?
AMY FAIRCHILD: No, they’re not cigarettes. They are electronic nicotine-delivery devices that heat nicotine and a combination of things like propylene glycol and water, to create a vapor that mimics the look and feel of smoking.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the medical community doesn't love nicotine, which is a stimulant. But is there any evidence that inhaling low concentrations of nicotine vapor itself poses a significant health threat, I mean, at least anywhere on the scale of carcinogenic tobacco tars?
AMY FAIRCHILD: No, the risks of nicotine are pretty low. There are some concerns that particularly developing adolescents shouldn’t be exposed to nicotine because of brain development issues. But I think that most people consider it a very benign drug.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, from a public health perspective, there's two schools of thoughts here, I suppose, one being that if e-cigarettes help wean smokers off of actual cigarettes, the risk of “vaping,” as they call that kind of smoking, is more than worth it. But former Mayor Bloomberg and others see not only a risk but a kind of evil agenda, such as we've learned to expect [LAUGHS] from Big Tobacco to, once again, not only normalize but fetishize the act of cigarette smoking. Do they have a point?
AMY FAIRCHILD: They certainly have a theoretical point. And they’re not wrong to be very skeptical of anything coming out of the tobacco industry that has attached to it claims of safety. In this case though, the studies that have been published of users, the evidence is all pointing in the direction that the vast majority of users are not new to e-cigarettes. They are current smokers, often heavy smokers. Even cigarette smokers who don't have any intention of quitting are reducing their levels of tobacco consumption as a result of using e-cigarettes.
BOB GARFIELD: On this show, we’ve spoken a couple of times to Stanton Glantz, who has worked tirelessly, without complete success, for sure, to shame Hollywood into stopping the depiction, and even glamorization, of cigarette use. So this ad that I’m about to play must make him crazy.
ACTOR STEPHEN DORFF: I’m Stephen Dorff. I’ve been a smoker for 20 years. With Blu, you can smoke at a basketball game, if you want to. And how about not having to go outside every ten minutes when you’re in a bar with your friends? The point is you can smoke Blu virtually anywhere. We’re all adults here. It’s time we take our freedom back. Come on, guys. Rise from the ashes.
BOB GARFIELD: So, that’s an explicit invocation of the celebrity appeal of e-cigarettes, exactly the sort of thing that health advocates despise. What’s your take on that ad?
AMY FAIRCHILD: Well, I would say yes and no. On the one hand, you do have people like Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy and others prominently featured in ads like this. You might argue that they’re glamorizing e-cigarettes. At the same time, they are stigmatizing tobacco cigarettes. Those advertisements hinge on the idea that smoking isn't sexy. It doesn't make you attractive. So, they’re really sending a public health message that’s very anti-tobacco, in many important ways.
BOB GARFIELD: How can, even the nanny state, as personified by Mike Bloomberg, ban products that themselves offer no harm? Isn’t this the sort of prior restraint that makes some people want to ban a videogame like Grand Theft Auto?
AMY FAIRCHILD: Well, I do think this is an instance of the nanny state, if not run amok, the nanny state worrying too much. I’m typically someone who embraces the regulatory power of the state. I have been supportive of limits on soda size. I'm entirely supportive of prohibitions on tobacco smoking in public. In the case of tobacco smoke, I think it's because it does represent a threat to others, but also because it represents a threat to ourselves, and we owe it to each other to limit those kind of grave risks in a way that we can.
But I think that we don't want to cross that line and say that something like e-cigarettes, that is not a risk to oneself and poses only theoretical risks, at this stage, to changing population use patterns, I think that's inappropriate in a situation where we're not looking at a pristine landscape in which e-cigarettes are being introduced, but rather in a situation in which we’re looking at tobacco cigarettes representing one of the greatest threats to human health that mankind has ever invented. We’re looking at more than 400,000 deaths a year that are related to smoking in the United States, alone. A billion deaths are projected globally for this century. And it’s against that backdrop that we have to view either the promise or the peril of e-cigarettes. And, in that context, they offer far more promise than they do peril.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Amy. Thank you very much.
AMY FAIRCHILD: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Amy Fairchild is a professor of sociomedical studies at Columbia University.