Introduced by the Chinese company Ruyan in 2004, e-cigarettes produce water vapor containing nicotine and the food additive propylene glycol. The tip of the battery-powered "cigarette" lights up when a user sucks on it, and the vapor looks like smoke, but it dissipates immediately and contains none of the toxins and carcinogens that are generated when tobacco burns.
Given the enormous differences between this vapor and tobacco smoke, the companies that sell e-cigarettes online and from shopping mall kiosks are on firm ground in advertising them as safer alternatives to conventional cigarettes that can be used in places where smoking is banned. The arguments of e-cigarette opponents, by contrast, reek of red herrings.
The critics warn that nicotine is addictive, that it may contribute to cardiovascular problems, and that smokers may use e-cigarettes as way of coping with smoking bans, continuing their habits instead of quitting. All of these objections also apply to the nicotine gum, patches, sprays and inhalers the FDA has approved as safe and effective smoking cessation tools.
E-cigarettes are less expensive than those products and may be more appealing to smokers looking for an experience that's closer to the real thing. Although they have not been subject to the sort of rigorous testing the FDA demands for new drugs, the drug they contain is not new. It's the same one delivered, in a much dirtier manner, by the cigarettes that the government says kill 400,000 Americans every year.
"The standard for lower-risk products for use by current smokers," argues the American Association of Public Health Physicians, "should be the hazard posed by cigarettes, not a pharmaceutical safety standard." Telling smokers they may not use e-cigarettes until they're approved by the FDA is like telling a floundering swimmer not to climb aboard a raft because it might have a leak. Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine, and his work appears in the new Reason anthology "Choice" (BenBella Books). To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.