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E-cigarettes could be a responsible way to misbehave: column

4:56 PM, Sep. 20, 2013  |  Comments
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As someone who hates smoking and loves children, even children who smoke, I was delighted to learn the other day that more and more kids smoke electronic cigarettes.

According to data furnished this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of 10 high school students used e-cigarettes last year, twice the number from 2011. CDC Director Tom Frieden said these teenagers might develop "a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes." Yes, and they might also develop an addiction to Caesar salads and Golden Girls reruns. Who knows?

'Much safer'

E-cigarettes have several things going for them. Unlike regular cigarettes, they can be odorless, which makes them much easier to bear than morning breath, hippies, public restrooms and Drakkar Noir.

They are less harmful than conventional cigarettes. A 2011 Journal of Public Health Policy study found them to be "much safer" than cigarettes. They deliver vaporized nicotine into people's lungs without nearly as many carcinogens and irritants. They are, like Larry King's eighth wife, much better than the original.

Because they simulate the look and feel of real cigarettes, e-cigarettes could be more effective than nicotine patches at weaning smokers off the real thing, as a Boston University study documents. Former anti-tobacco U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, now a board member of an e-cigarette firm, said they are "the first thing I've seen in years that has promise for decreasing tobacco use in our country."

One would think that anti-tobacco activists would welcome all this, but they don't for a simple reason: E-cigarettes are much too cigarette-y. The enemies of tobacco are against anything that resembles tobacco, including candy cigarettes and Big League Chew. "We must keep our youth from experimenting," said Tim McAfee, director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health. The more popular the product becomes, the more suspiciously it is perceived.

Reality deflection

A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, which wants to regulate e-cigarettes, said, "We don't want the public to perceive them as a safer alternative to cigarettes" - a puzzling statement considering that is precisely what they are.

Anti-smoking absolutists oppose e-cigarettes for the worst of reasons - because they are safer. Their obstinacy makes their mission all the more difficult to achieve and to justify. It is hard to demonize something that means you little or no harm. That's why no one talks about banning vitamin C or invading Switzerland.

E-cigarettes, though neither nutritious nor geopolitically neutral, are not that big of a deal. Ingesting strange chemicals is - let's face it - part of growing up, even if they are addictive. Indeed, it has even become a custom for presidential candidates to catalog all the illegal substances they have used, and to be duly applauded afterward for their vast experience. That is because we cherish the freedom to be stupid more than the duty to be safe.

Kids, like politicians, do foolish and dangerous things, and it is up to adults to make sure that they misbehave as responsibly as possible. Basic tips: If you jump out of an airplane, wear a parachute. If you visit the Neverland Ranch, bring an adult. And if you inhale something besides oxygen, an electronic cigarette won't kill you, at least not immediately.

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