Laws that restrict smoking in public places represent good public policy. Beyond the obvious health benefits associated with reducing exposure to toxic fumes, these laws promote basic civility: Even if second-hand smoke were completely harmless to other people's health, non-smokers should not have to inhale the noxious by-products of those who do not have the common courtesy to refrain from inflicting their vices on others. That being said, recent legislative efforts to ban electronic cigarettes from public places are completely misguided.
E-cigarettes are essentially nicotine delivery devices--not much different from patches or nicotine gum (although not generally regarded in as positive a light as those other "smoking cessation" tools). They look more or less like "real" cigarettes, and people "smoke" them in much the same way. Instead of smoke, though, e-cigs release harmless--or even pleasant smelling--water vapor into the air, thus posing no health risks to nearby non-smokers. E-cigs even have a little light on the end that "flares" when people puff--and as an added "bonus," these tips, unlike the glowing tips of cigarettes, can come in a variety of colors not necessarily found in nature.
Lately, in various locales including New York City, lawmakers have pursued legislation to ban e-cigarettes just like their more tobacco-y cousins. The basic argument seems to be that e-cigarettes cause confusion among people who may take offense when they see someone "lighting up" in a movie theater or restaurant or any other place from which cigarettes have been banned--which is to say, any other place. Furthermore, lawmakers fear that e-cigarettes send a "message that smoking is socially acceptable."
Well, we can't have that! Outlaw them immediately!
Look, I don't have a problem with government officials discouraging smoking. If they want to ban cigarette advertising from television, fine. Want to impose high taxes on tobacco products? OK. Use tax dollars to sponsor public information campaigns warning of the dangers of cigarettes? I'm down with that. But banning electronic cigarettes goes too far.
Before I go on, it is de rigueur at this point to mention that e-cigarettes have not been evaluated by the FDA and that they may, for all anybody knows, be extremely dangerous. Perhaps they are highly carcinogenic. Perhaps they cause gout. Perhaps prolonged use promotes the growth of extra toes. Fair enough. But while these products might cause problems to those who use them, it is clear that they cause far fewer problems than traditional cigarettes do to the people who don't use them.
One could rightfully worry that people who see e-cigarette smokers will be tempted to pick up the habit--especially when they see an e-cig glowing a cool, light-saberish shade of magenta. But then again, if lemming-like souls are going to follow the herd of cool kids over the cliff of smoking, wouldn't we prefer they take up this less lethal variety thereof?
Might these newly-recruited smokers move on to tobacco products? Sure they might. Anything might happen. But making harm-reductive smoking more difficult for those who are not ready to quit but are trying to mitigate the negative effects for everyone else is flawed policy at best and downright destructive at worst.