Thursday, April 24, 2014

Holy Smoke, an E-Cigarette Ban in Los Angeles!

This past Saturday, the City of Los Angeles enacted a ban on electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes. Proponents of the ban think that e-cigarettes are too close to the real thing, whereas opponents argue that e-cigarettes are nowhere near the nuisance that regular cigarettes are. A few months ago, I had made a libertarian argument that partial smoking bans in public places were actually justifiable. The question I have to ask here is whether e-cigarettes have the same externalities as regular cigarettes or if e-cigarettes are merely mimics of real cigarettes.

Upon answering the question of whether the City of Los Angeles should have passed an e-cigarette ban, we should first ask ourselves what an electronic cigarette is and how it differs from a regular cigarette. An electronic cigarette is a cigarette-shaped, battery-powered, cylindrical tube that vaporizes liquid nicotine. The major emission from an e-cigarette is nicotine; e-cigarette "vaping" does not entail combustion, which removes the negative externality of imposing second-hand toxins unto others. The other major carcinogens, the ones make tobacco smoke such a negative externality and harm one's health, are essentially non-existent. I know that e-cigarettes are still a new enough of a development where one could argue that conclusions from e-cigarette studies are premature.

However, there is an increasing amount of academic literature that show that e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes, which makes sense because e-cigarettes not only lack the carcinogens and tars that are in tobacco products, but they also have smaller concentrations of nicotine than a regular cigarette (also see Oxford study here), which means that they are healthier (Polosa et al., 2013; Waegner et al., 2012Cahn and Siegel, 2011) and can be used to reduce the smoking of tobacco products (Polosa et al., 2011Siegel et al., 2011; CDC, 2013). Additionally, what is lacking is the evidence showing that there are second-hand smoke impacts from this vapor (Burstyn, 2013; McAuley et al., 2012), not to mention the emissions from e-cigarettes are by and large non-offensive, which is why e-cigarettes have been immune from cigarette bans prior to. I can also cite a recent study at the Lancet (Bullen et al., 2013) that suggests that e-cigarettes can be just effective as nicotine patches, which means that they can be used to wean people off of tobacco products.

Just because electronic cigarettes look like cigarettes and use the word "cigarette" does not make it a tobacco product that has the same level of harm of traditional smoking products. E-cigarettes have the nicotine that smokers crave, but it comes without the toxins from tobacco smoking. If we are to aim for the goal of national harm reduction, which is important because tobacco smoking kills many individuals per annum, we should not stub out e-cigarette smoking with e-cigarette bans. Instead, we should find a way to encourage smokers to use these healthier alternatives so smokers aren't killed by the real culprit of tobacco.

5-3-2016 Addendum: The latest and greatest in studies point out why we shouldn't ban e-cigarettes is from the Royal College Physicians in the United Kingdom. To summarize the study, e-cigarettes come with huge harm reduction, and is the next step towards a more tobacco-free society.