By Jacob Grier
Source: Oregon Live
When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Day 2009, Oregon ushered in its statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. I was at the Horse Brass Pub, one of Portland’s most notoriously smoky drinking dens, enjoying one last cigar with a bunch of other patrons who were none too happy about the new rules.
The ban, we were told, was necessary to protect employees and customers alike from secondhand smoke. Health researchers had conducted dozens of studies attempting to show that exposure endangered nonsmokers. Some of the results were medically implausible, but ban advocates at least made the effort of demonstrating actual harm to actual humans.
Many of us doubted that the evidence really mattered. As I wrote in The Oregonian/OregonLive at the time, “Protecting workers is simply the polite fiction by which nonsmokers have imposed their will on an increasingly unpopular minority.”
We suspected this, but how could we prove it? What if there were a device that looked like a cigarette and mimicked the effects of smoking, yet emitted a mostly harmless vapor instead of tobacco smoke? If authorities tried to ban that too, without bothering to establish that it endangered anyone, then our suspicions would be vindicated.
That device exists. It’s called an e-cigarette. And sure enough, the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners is voting on whether to ban its use indoors. The Legislature, too, may expand the state’s smoking ban to cover vaping.
The evidence that e-cigarettes cause significant harm to users, much less to bystanders, is weak to non-existent. The county’s case against them is that they sort of look like smoking. Vaping indoors, says the Board of Health for Multnomah County, “threatens to undermine compliance with smoking regulations and reverse the progress that has been made in establishing a social norm that smoking is not permitted in public places and places of employment.”
Never mind whether any real person has ever been confused by this. Ask instead why merely keeping up appearances is a matter for the law. If simulated smoking must be banned in bars just to send a healthy message, then my God, think of all the actual drinking going on!
Instead of solid evidence against e-cigarettes, we have wild speculation and deliberate fear-mongering, like that from the Mayo Clinic director who warned that e-cigarette liquid is “similar to antifreeze” or the doctor in North Carolina who misinformed news viewers that vapor could be “several thousand degrees when it hits your lungs.”
Closer to home, researchers at Portland State University recently published a study claiming that e-cigarette vapor contains five times more formaldehyde than tobacco smoke does. However, they only got that result after applying high voltages to the liquid, the authors neglect to promote their other important finding: That at lower, more realistic voltages, they detected no formaldehyde whatsoever.
On the positive side, evidence is accumulating that vapor devices are modestly effective at helping smokers quit or reduce their consumption of cigarettes. And although teenage experimentation is concerning, youth smoking rates have continued dropping to the lowest levels on record at the same time that vaping has gained in popularity. So while everyone agrees that minors should be prevented from buying e-cigs, it’s too soon to panic that they are acting as a gateway to the real thing.
For those of us old enough to remember when smoking ban advocates cited real evidence, the current movement to ban vaping confirms what we suspected all along: That this isn’t about protecting people, it’s about controlling them, and that empirical research is relevant only to the extent that it helps the political cause.
The state and county should proceed with sensible plans to restrict sales of e-cigarettes to minors. But we should treat adults as adults, upholding the liberal principle that how they live is up to them, so long as they are not credibly harming others. If the worst that health officials can say about e-cigarettes is that they don’t like the way they look, then they ought to learn the public virtue of minding their own business.
Jacob Grier is a Portland-based writer.