Misguided anti-tobacco advocates are trying to rally Californians against an important new weapon in the war against smoking: smokeless e-cigarettes and vaporizers. Despite compelling evidence that e-cigs present no public health hazard and greatly reduce the risk of smoking-related disease, advocates have been lobbying legislators across the state to prohibit e-cig use in nonsmoking areas.
E-cigarettes don't entail the health hazards of smoking because they don't produce smoke at all. Rather, they emit vapors by gently heating a nicotine solution or similar substance without burning anything. This eliminates the toxic and carcinogenic byproducts of combusted leaf that are the primary cause of smoking-related disease. It also eliminates any secondhand health risks to bystanders, the primary rationale for the state's anti-smoking laws.
E-cigs thus present a valuable "harm reduction" alternative for smokers, delivering nicotine without the dangers of lung cancer, emphysema and other smoking-related disease. Growing numbers of ex-smokers report that they have abandoned smoking entirely by substituting e-cigs instead.
Vaporizers are also widely used for medical marijuana. In studies sponsored by California NORML, vaporization was found to eliminate hundreds of toxic and carcinogenic compounds from marijuana smoke, delivering an effectively pure stream of medically active ingredients. A follow-up human study by the California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research confirmed that vaporization is a "safe and effective mode of delivery" for medical marijuana patients.
Opponents argue that the harmlessness of e-cigs and vaporizers has not been completely proved, pointing to studies that have detected trace emissions of potentially toxic contaminants from nicotine e-cigs. However, the levels have been far beneath accepted safe exposure thresholds. Scientific studies have found no evidence of potential contaminant harm to users at a level that would warrant attention if it occurred in the workplace.
Whatever the minimal risk of e-cigs to users, the secondhand risks to bystanders are truly negligible. Unlike cigarettes, e-cigs don't emit sidestream vapors when they aren't being used. Users have been known to vape in crowded restaurants without being noticed. At worst, accumulated concentrations of e-cig vapors are no worse than everyday odors from kitchen grills, garden plants, household cleaners or ambient pollution.
In the end, the biggest fear of the anti-tobacco lobby is that vaporizers will "renormalize" smoking. Yet recent experience shows this is backward: vaporizers threaten to end smoking entirely. Usage surveys show that e-cigs have been a gateway away from smoking, not a steppingstone toward it. As a result, cigarette sales have been sinking even while e-cig use has been soaring.
Clearly, the use of e-cigs and vaporizers are not appropriate everywhere - for instance, in schoolrooms. But there is no reason that employees should be forced to go outdoors for a smoking break if they can use e-cigs on the job without disturbing others. Neither should seriously ill medical marijuana patients be forced to go outdoors simply to take their medicine.
In a free society, decisions about e-cigs and vaping should rightly be made by the parties concerned, not inflexible government regulations. Property owners and businesses should be free to make their own rules about e-cigs to suit their own tenants, customers and employees. Last year, state legislators wisely stepped back from a proposed e-cig ban after being apprised of the consequences. California should stay the course and welcome, not impede, this beneficial harm reduction technology.
Dale H. Gieringer is the director of California NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.