Wellness: Blowing Electric Smoke

Thanks to technology, kids today can do almost anything—virtually, that is. Once they sign into cyberspace, the rules and boundaries of the real world blur as quickly as a screen saver. Mom always said don’t play ball in the house—unless they’re playing simulated baseball on the Nintendo Wii console. Children should never handle firearms—unless they’re fending off an invading alien coalition in the Halo videogame series. Now some fear a new electronic gadget threatens to undermine the cautionary messages about adolescent smoking.

Electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigs, were first developed in 2004, but have only recently garnered the American public’s attention since companies began touting these smoking substitutes in shopping malls, on television, and on line. Resembling a cigarette in its shape and size, the e-cig is supposed to recreate the sensual experience of puffing on a cigarette, but without the smoke and tobacco. To achieve the sedative effect, most e-cigs contain a capsule of nicotine-laden liquid that vaporizes when heated, to be inhaled by the user. Though e-cigs aren’t widely available for purchase in the Pioneer Valley, Internet vendors are offering these devices in every color, flavor, and size imaginable to anyone, anywhere, at any age.

The lack of regulation on both the manufacturing and sale of these products has stirred the suspicions of public health officials. Even the FDA seems stymied by this strain of cigarette, as it has yet to deliver any conclusive results regarding the content of the nicotine solution and the potential health hazards it presents.

Rather than waiting for a verdict from the federal authorities, some local boards of health have chosen to “exercise precaution,” drafting ordinances to regulate the purchase and public use of e-cigs. Failure to do so, according to Northampton Department of Health Director Ben Wood, would signal that the organization has reneged in the mission against smoking: “We would be undermining our cigarette laws. In effect, we would be reversing social and cultural norms.” He fears the youth would be most vulnerable to the shift in the tobacco trend—that they would be swept away on the wave of e-cig excitement.

Making e-cigs inaccessible under law and invisible in public, Wood hopes, will prevent minors from tinkering with the gizmos. To that end, the Northampton Department of Health has drawn up a series of proscriptions banning the sale of e-cigs to minors and forbidding the use of e-cigs indoors in public spaces. Northampton is not alone. Holyoke, South Hadley and other cities in Western Massachusetts have enacted similar legislation.

The ordinances have e-cig supporters fuming. Though there have been no scientific studies confirming its effectiveness as a smoking cessation method, recovered smokers swear the e-cig has helped wean them off of their dangerous habit. To e-cig advocates, the laws represent a systematic stigmatization of the device. They fear that its illicit status will dissuade potential beneficiaries of the e-cig from trying it.

Joining personally invested opponents are people with libertarian leanings who have denounced the ordinances as an example of government intrusion. They interpret the Department’s preemptive approach as an uninformed regulation and an unwarranted encroachment on civil liberties.

The Board of Health’s concerns aren’t entirely unsubstantiated; in a laboratory analysis the FDA found trace amounts of carcinogens and toxins like diethylene glycol, a chemical found in antifreeze. The FDA has yet to determine if these particulates pose health risks or if they’re really negligible in such small doses. But in this current climate of uncertainty, critics contend, lawmakers shouldn’t be passing any definitive legislation.

Purported to be cheaper than the classic cigarette in the long run, e-cigs are still an investment. The starter kits range from $50 to $200, and the refill cartridges, marketed as the equivalent of 20 cigarettes, start at $10. In the Valley e-cig vendors are few and far between, so the bulk of the transactions are electronic, via phone or internet. Given the high cost and the fact that orders require a credit card, it’s not easy for children to acquire an e-cig, but parents and city officials remain on high alert, concerned that e-cigs could gradually infiltrate the mainstream if legal defenses against them aren’t secure.

Wood insists that the real impetus of the laws stems from the Board’s concern about protecting minors from a potentially addictive, harmful substance. Plastered with colorful packaging and offered in fun flavors like Coca-Cola and chocolate, e-cigs are tricked out with a marketing strategy that could leave an impression on children. And as obesity has superseded smoking as the prevention priority in schools, the thrust of the anti-tobacco movement has waned. Smoking rates are still declining, but the trend has stagnated.

As tobacco use remains an important public health concern, however, officials want to douse any flicker of cigarette enthusiasm before it spreads to a younger demographic. In Northampton, both e-cig advocates and adversaries will have to hold their breath until fall, when the Board of Health finalizes its decision.

Author: Samantha Presnal

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