Jacob Sullum

A few weeks ago, as the New York City Council's health committee considered a ban on using electronic cigarettes in public, several fans of the battery-powered devices sat in the audience, demonstrating their operation. "I'm watching puffs of vapor go up in this room," said Councilman Peter Vallone. "It is confusing."

Last week Vallone and 42 of his colleagues demonstrated their confusion by voting to treat vaping like smoking, meaning e-cigarettes will be banned from bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces open to the public, along with outdoor locations such as parks and beaches. Although that arbitrary edict may relieve the discomfort of politicians bewildered by a new technology, it probably will mean more smoking-related disease and death, the opposite of their avowed goal.

The New York Times called the meeting during which Vallone expressed his dismay at metal tubes that resemble cigarettes "one of the most scientifically vague and emotionally charged health committee hearings in recent memory." New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley supplied the scientific vagueness, admitting there is no evidence that e-cigarettes pose a threat to vapers themselves, let alone bystanders. Still, he said, "I certainly can't guarantee that that is safe."

But the real problem with e-cigarettes, according to Farley and other supporters of the ban, is that they look too much like the real thing. "E-cigarettes threaten, in my opinion, to undermine enforcement of the Smoke-Free Air Act," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said last week. "Because many of the e-cigarettes are designed to look like cigarettes and be used just like them, they can lead to confusion or confrontation."

You might think that people of ordinary intelligence would pretty 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 learned the difference, they could explain it to the New York City Council. "These are being touted as safer than cigarettes," says Councilman James Gennaro, "but we don't really know that."

Yes, we do. While some questions remain about the long-term effects of inhaling propylene glycol, the government-approved food ingredient that carries nicotine to vapers' lungs, there is no doubt that the hazards of consuming the drug this way pale beside the hazards of consuming it along with the myriad toxins and carcinogens created by tobacco combustion. People who tell you otherwise are blowing smoke -- or possibly e-cigarette vapor, since they can't seem to tell the difference.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Jacob Sullum's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.
©Creators Syndicate