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What Democrats Need to Know about E-Cigarettes and the Recent NYC and Chicago Bans on Usage

At Alice's Teacup on the Upper East Side last summer. This will soon be illegal in New York City's five boroughs. Enforcement will be tough, absent surveillance cameras, given that vapor is nearly odorless and disappears in seconds.
At Alice's Teacup on the Upper East Side last summer. This will soon be illegal in New York City's five boroughs. Enforcement will be tough, absent surveillance cameras, given that vapor is nearly odorless and disappears in seconds.
Upon my arrival at baggage claim at LAX on Thursday, December 19th after two glorious weeks in the city, I received an email from a New York friend telling me that the City Council voted 43-8 to ban e-cigarettes (e-cigs) in public places. 


Little did I know that weeks later, Chicago's powers that be would follow New York. Or that Chicago politicians would lambast stars at the Golden Globes for puffing on their e-cigs at the Beverly Hilton. They even made noises about legislation which would ban e-cigs at awards ceremonies, though what dog they have in the fight of awards shows as Chicagoans escapes this bicoastal girl raised around the industry in LA. 

Prominent liberal Julia Louis Dreyfus and fellow resident both of Pacific Palisades and Santa Barbara/Montecito--a nominee in two categories this year--is a proud e-cig smoker (as am I). It will be curious to see if she crosses party lines on this issue given her clear personal investment.

A similar but more extreme ban failed to pass in Beverly Hills only because the law would have applied not just to usage but sales. In other words, the sponsors of the bill got greedy. Most national advocates I've talked to believe the Beverly Hills ban would have passed if it had been limited to usage. 

But where New York goes, so often does the rest of the country. That Chicago followed so swiftly on the heels of New York should convince people that liberal, regulation-happy California--where e-cigs were included in the UC system-wide ban--is not far behind. San Rafael of course passed the most restrictive anti-smoking legislation in America in late 2013. 

[Ed. Note: The Huffington Post rejected this. It is the first piece of mine they haven't run since I began blogging. They've run the others without touching so much as a semi-colon but would not comment on their decision.]


I. Understanding--and Debunking--the Case Against E-Cigs.

I was aware of December's vote in New York but thought if the ban passed at all, it would be by a small margin. 43-8 isn't close; it's a landslide in one of the few coastal cities where people of all backgrounds and classes still smoke. Already by the 1980s, it was uncool to smoke in West LA: in my elementary school class, only two kids had smoking parents, and one was apparently in the smoking closet (Bruce Paltrow).

Dan Garodnick, the Councilman for the Upper East Side (where I live part-time), voted for the ban, though the lady manning his phones told me days before the vote, "The Councilman has no particular view on the subject."

Hmm, interesting to vote to ban something about which one has "no particular view." Shouldn't indifference translate to a reluctance to ban a behavior? Well, apparently not if you're a progressive pandering to what a conservative New York friend of mine calls a "silk stocking district" Garodnick was born and raised.

I'm a Democrat and most (though not all) of my New York friends are liberals, but I seem to have a bizarre pheromone which attracts the only Republican male or males at a bar or party. I'm not kidding: I am a GOP magnet, and even on the Upper West Side, I manage to find the only Republican in the room, a frequent joke among friends.

I am therefore not surprised that politicians serving the UWS (or other ultra-progressive districts like Greenwich Village) support the ban. But the dirty little secret of the Upper East Side, at least if you're a Democrat, is that plenty of the area's residents vote on the right, particularly men. They're social liberals who (of course) support marriage equality and reproductive freedom but they're fiscally conservative, mildly hawkish, and love their cigars.

The Upper East Side has the highest concentration and number of cigar bars in Manhattan and I've been to most of them. Those boys in finance and Biglaw like their cigars and more to the point, they don't appreciate being told what to do, as anyone taking on Too Big to Fail banks should by now realize.

Councilman Garodnick's phone lady double-talked me, reminding me in a patronizing tone that the proposal merely sought to ban public usage. Well, duh: freedom to vape where tobacco is banned is part of the point. And a tip to staffers manning a politician's phones: you never know when the daughter of a former federal prosecutor and judge with years of debate under her belt will call in about an upcoming vote and then, irked by your tone and duplicity, blog about it.

Earlier that week, I spoke to a passionate young man working to fight the ban. He informed me that as a lawyer, Gardonick has tirelessly represented the rights of LGBT couples. (Yay, by the way.) The LGBT community smokes at far higher levels than straights he said, so I reminded the chick on the phone that by voting yes on the ban, her boss would be harming the very community he has been so stellar in supporting.

A month prior to the ban, I considered writing my first Huffington Post blog about e-cigs but soon learned that this publication has not been a friend either to e-cigs or "vapers" like myself. I therefore chose to avoid the topic--until now. 45 million Americans smoke cigarettes and at least 400,000 Americans die annually from tobacco if you include COPD and smoking-related cancers, coronaries and strokes.

The e-cig ban is not, then, a fringe issue: smoking is "the most important, devastating and preventable [health] issue facing America," according to Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical and executive director of the American Council on Science and Health and author of "Smoking Kills, and So Might E-Cigarette Regulation." 

I acknowledge that as a smoker late in life (I started at 36) who has reduced my tobacco consumption by roughly 75%--at least when I don't lose my charger or battery!--I have a vested interest in the war on e-cigs declared by health agencies like the Center for Disease Control, the FDA and the American Cancer Society.

And make no mistake, this is a war whose ultimate goal is total prohibition. Not a faux war, like the so-called "War on Christmas," but a concerted, funded, powerful effort ultimately to deny smokers access to a product, which if not 100% safe, is vastly safer than tobacco.

This is precisely the point of Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, who finds it at once maddening and illogical to worry about "hypothetical risks from minuscule levels of several chemicals in e-cigarettes when the alternative is known to be deadly: cigarettes contain thousands of chemicals, including dozens of carcinogens and hundreds of toxins." Siegel is among the most prominent anti-smoking advocates to spearhead the fight against e-cig bans.

Everyone should read Joe Nocera's recent New York Times op-ed, "Two Cheers for E-Cigarettes," which brilliantly exposed the lunacy of opposition of "health" agencies to e-cigarettes, a product which is not, contrary to their claims, a "gateway drug." While teen use of e-cigs has greatly increased, those teens were already tobacco smokers. Translation: e-cigs aren't the "gateway" the CDC claims.

Of course nicotine is an addictive stimulant, but nicotine alone won't kill you. A 2007 British Medical Society study cited by John Tierney in the New York Times found that "nicotine itself is not especially hazardous."

In 2011, Professor Brad Rodu at the University of Kentucky at Louisville School of Medicine concluded that the results of the FDA study which was the basis of a failed attempt to ban e-cigarettes that year "are highly unlikely to have any possible significance to users" because they "detected chemicals 'at about one million times lower concentrations than are conceivably related to human health'" (emphasis mine).

"Conceivably related to human health": Since when do public health agencies make recommendations on the basis of the farfetched and fantastic? And since when do politicians pass laws on the basis of the "highly unlikely" or hypothetical? (Well, California politicians tried to sneak that not-yet-manufactured fingerprint gun into recent legislation, but even for California, that was beyond the pale and it didn't pass.) The language bears repeating because it underscores the deepest truth about opposition to e-cigs: it isn't, and never has been, about public health or hard science.

The shortest and best take-down of the New York City ban is by Reason's Jacob Sullum, who describes the meeting which led to the ban as "one of the most scientifically vague and emotionally charged health committee hearings in recent memory." Sullum notes that even New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley "admitt[ed] that there is no evidence that e-cigs pose a threat to vapers, let alone bystanders" (emphasis mine) and said merely, "I certainly can't guarantee that [they] are safe."

The lack of "longterm studies" is always the basis for the bans which have spread with astonishing rapidity across America. But in NYC, there is a twist worthy of The Onion: Farley and other supporters of the ban like Councilman James Gennaro and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, bless their hearts, claim that the true threat of e-cigs--since they can't make a respectable scientific case--is that they they look too much like real cigarettes.

Of this ludicrous argument, Sullum has written the wittiest sentences I've read in any article on the subject: "You might think that people of ordinary intelligence would quickly learn to distinguish a burning stick of dried vegetable matter from an e-cigarette, which contains no tobacco and produces no smoke. And once they do, perhaps they could explain it to the New York City Council."

II. Harm Reduction vs. Abstinence: Putting E-Cig Bans in Historical Public Health Context.

To repeat, I'm not a Republican, but the conservatives are right on this issue and much of the best writing on the e-cigs comes from publications like the Wall Street JournalEconomistReason, and American.

John Tierney usefully contextualizes the war both on smoking and e-cigs. Liberals have historically favored "harm reduction" as the goal of public health policy, while conservatives have advocated "abstinence" (think teen pregnancy or drug addiction). Here, it's the conservatives touting "harm reduction" and arguing for the "courageous, science-based, and compassionate course" advocated by Dr. Gilbert Ross.

An 2013 editorial in the Economist concludes that "those charged with improving public health should be promoting e-cigs, not discouraging their use." And this summer, the Wall Street Journal presented the results of a study in Catania which gives Professor Siegel hope that e-cigs are "at least as good" as FDA-approved cessation products.

Supporters of the ban fear that e-cigs "normalize" smoking and thereby undermine the gains of the Smoke-Free Air Act. Of course, when you can't make an argument based on science, it's convenient to argue on the basis of psychological factors which can neither be verified nor quantified. And note that the very health agencies up in arms about the trace nicotine in e-cigs seem untroubled by the very same chemical in "approved" products like gums and lozenges. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with Big Pharma's fear of diminished profits from more costly cessation products, could it?

Those wishing to ban e-cigs often argue that the popular fruit and dessert flavors prove that e-cig companies are pitching the product to kids. Do New York and Chicago lawmakers intend to tackle the obvious menaces of peppermint schnapps, flavored vodka and wine coolers next? I'm guessing not.

Moreover, those who claim to be looking out for the children seem not to grasp one rationale behind the flavored e-cigs. As one manager of The E-Ciggy in Westlake Village, CA explained to me, vapers who puff on vanilla or cherry or chocolate e-cigs often lose the taste for tobacco (even in vapor form) and may therefore be less likely to return to conventional cigarettes.

And of course, in the name of protecting children and teens, advocates of the bans think nothing of the orphans created when parents who smoke get lung cancer, quit working, and languish until death while the bills pile up and the family files for bankruptcy. But hey, at least they weren't vaping which might, you know, confuse someone or worse, lead to "a confrontation." And yes, the New York City Council actually uttered those words.

But really the NYC e-cig ban on usage comes down to this: under the guise of a concern for public health, the opposition to e-cigs reflects what Sullum calls the "sub-rational motivations" of those in whom tobacco arouses "disgust, contempt and self-righteousness." "All in the name of death," Sullum concludes one of his many pieces on the subject for Reason.

If you're a Democrat in California who thinks we're supposed to be the party of compassion and sanity, the e-cig ban is especially galling. The New York (and Chicago) City Councils, along with other opponents to e-cigs on the left, clearly feel that if smokers can't quit cold turkey or with the aid of approved methods and drugs, it would be better that they simply drop dead from tobacco. Can't you just feel the love and concern?

III. My E-Cig Story.

Let me conclude with the reasons I love e-cigarettes--you know, apart from the whole not-dying-a-miserable-and-protracted-death thing (which most, but clearly not the New York and Chicago City Councils), would consider an definite perk:

1) They don't cause wrinkles: two LA doctors I know both agree that women in looks-conscious LA worry more about wrinkles than lung cancer, so they both explained why smoking takes a bigger toll on female than male skin,
2) They save me 80 or 90 dollars a month, 
3) They keep my skin, hair and clothes from smelling of smoke, 
4) They keep my car free of ash and produce no icky butts, which as a conscientious smoker, I toss in purses and pockets instead of the street, much to the disgust of my non-smoking boyfriend, and
5) They can be smoked both in residences and, for four more months in NYC, public places without offending or harming others and,
6) They provide the wonderful experience of smoking, which no other NRT does.

No gum, patch, or pill reproduces the experience of smoking, with which I fell in love at 36. I can easily go eight or nine hours on a plane without a smoke or nicotine substitute. Conclusion? It ain't just the nicotine.

Several years ago, Town and Country's Nina Griscom wrote poignantly about the mystique--at once aesthetic and emotional--of smoking, which she took up as a teen in a Swiss boarding school. Griscom mused about the allure of having a stranger light your cigarette only to find he dated a relative of yours. There's no fire in e-cigs, but it's the next best thing to lighting up on a beautiful, cold night in the city. And the more you smoke e-cigs, the dirtier and less appealing you find conventional cigarettes. This is why so many users of e-cigarettes (myself included) foresee a smoke-free future. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Keith Stammrs February 02, 2014 at 08:05 AM
Big Pharma has a big stake in fighting electronic cigarettes in that the market for NRT and tobacco related harm drugs is worth around $289 billion per year, tobacco sales are down directly hit by the ecigarette by around 12% so the Tobacco Barons are not happy and are hedging their bets by buying into the ecig market, then you have government tax revenues on tobacco being hit and future pension pay outs will last longer when ex smokers live longer. Lots of vested interests lining up to take a shot at this game changing , lifesaving technology.
Gordon Restrepo February 02, 2014 at 09:15 PM
Jordan Zoot, where do you get your information from? I personally know a 71 year old woman withy COPD from decades of smoking. She essentially no longer needs to use her Spiriva inhaler. Thus the TRUE sin of ecigs. They adversely effect the bottom line of the "special interest" with perhaps the deepest pockets of all. Ecigs are a technology with incredible potential. Aside from the OBVIOUS health benefits (and one would have to be disturbingly near brain dead to not see those benefits), ecigs actually hold the promise of rescuing Medicare, from the devastating costs associated with smoking related illness.
Gordon Restrepo February 02, 2014 at 09:22 PM
Jordan S. Zoot is an idiot.
Grumpy Old Man February 03, 2014 at 07:48 AM
Gordon - when Zoot becomes eligible for Medicare he will start a campaign to preclude Medicare from paying for smoking related illness.
Jordan S. Zoot February 03, 2014 at 08:42 AM
Grumpy...to hell with waiting....I would be absolutely fine with forcing Medicare to preclude from paying for smoking related illnesses starting TODAY on a retroactive basis. Gordon Restrepo....hopefully you will be among those that contract small cell lung cancer and die in agony you are the one that is beyond retarded.

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