A year or two ago, the administration at Texas State University, where I teach, passed a regulation that abolished smoking everywhere on campus, inside and out. I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I have never smoked. Both my parents were moderate to heavy smokers, and my father died of lung cancer at the age of 57. So I am familiar with the harm smoking can do. On the other hand, some see widespread bans on personal habits that have at least some redeeming features as abuse of governmental authority. Overall, I was mildly pleased by the ban, and so when I walked by a student lounge area in our building the other day and saw what I thought was a puff of cigarette smoke, I was surprised.
But on closer inspection, the student turned out to be "vaping": smoking (or whatever the appropriate verb is here) an electronic cigarette. Was that violating the smoking ban or not? So far, the university hasn't ruled on whether vaping counts as smoking. Since electronic cigarettes are unquestionably an engineered product, their production, sale, and use fall within the purview of engineering ethics.
A visit to the website HowStuffWorks.com informed me that a Chinese pharmacist invented e-cigarettes a decade ago. They depend on small lithium batteries for their energy source, and rechargeable lithium batteries themselves haven't been around for much longer than that. The power goes through a voltage regulator to a small heating element, where a solution of nicotine in propylene glycol is vaporized and inhaled by the user. The stuff becomes a finely dispersed mist upon exhaling and looks different than true cigarette smoke, probably because the particles are larger and evaporate rather than dispersing. The current form of the device was originally marketed as an aid to help people quit smoking, but as with many such aids for addiction, the cure may not be much of an improvement over the disease.
Who is affected by vaping? Well, there are the manufacturers of the product and its auxiliary apparatus and supplies: chargers, the nicotine solution, the e-cigarettes themselves. There are users, many but not all of whom are former smokers of real cigarettes. There are the makers of conventional tobacco products, who may either feel threatened by the new development or may co-opt it once the market gets large enough, and start selling similar products themselves. There are various organizational entities ranging from private companies up to things like the European Union, which are now tasked with deciding what if anything to do about vaping. And last, but hopefully not least, there is the general non-smoking public for whom second-hand-smoke bans were enacted. But partly because e-cigarettes are so new, nobody has a lot of solid data on their health hazards and whether second-hand nicotine-tinged propylene glycol is something to worry about.
Hong Kong and Singapore, among other countries, have imposed flat-out bans on e-cigarettes, but most nations either have no laws about them or impose only mild regulation. Their status in the U. S. has been the subject of numerous court cases, and attempts to get them classified as drug delivery devices have been unsuccessful. The latest court ruling, which is more definite than logical, says they can be regulated only as tobacco products, which is a little like classifying tires as agricultural products because rubber comes from trees. But the effect is that governments can't do anything to e-cigarettes that they can't do to regular cigarettes. Consequently, some state governments have banned sales to minors, but that is about the extent of U. S. regulation so far.
It seems to me that e-cigarettes are all about the nicotine, which has been proved time and again to be addictive. But so has alcohol, and we all know what a flop Prohibition was. I confess that I don't relish the idea of attending a party at which I discover several of my friends or students sucking on phony cigarettes, but then again, I don't go to a lot of parties anyway. In the last couple of decades, the latent puritanical streak in American culture has fastened onto cigarettes, with the result that most people who smoke, as well as most non-smokers, regard the cigarette habit as a disreputable vice. And this attitude itself will probably keep e-cigarettes from becoming as common as cellphones, for example.
The medical and health evidence on vaping is still largely lacking, so the precautionary principle says to leave it alone until it's been proven to be safe, whatever "safe" means in this context. The main ingredients of the vapor—nicotine and propylene glycol—are well-understood compounds. Nicotine use in any form is psychologically addictive, but doesn't itself cause cancer. Propylene glycol, if pure, is approved for use in foods. So it's unlikely that their combination in e-cigarettes poses a sinister unknown risk, although one can't be sure without the appropriate long-term studies.
The thing I dislike the most about e-cigarettes is that they present one more opportunity for people, especially young people, to become dependent on a costly habit that otherwise doesn't make the world a better place. I say that in full knowledge that some of the historical figures I most admire, including G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, were smokers, not of e-cigarettes but of the original old smelly tobacco products themselves. E-cigarettes are an addition to a spectrum of products that are potentially habit-forming, products that lie on a spectrum whose mildest end includes coffee and tea, and whose opposite malignant end winds up with heroin and crystal meth. Some people can choose to stay in one place on the harmless end of that spectrum, while others find that they are drawn through the milder products to take dangerous and illegal risks at the other end. This is not to say that everyone who tries e-cigarettes will end up hooked on them, or will start smoking real ones. But some will. And is the pleasure, or whatever satisfaction that people get from them, worth the risk to those who may find that they are being controlled by their habit, rather than the other way around? We don't know, but it is a risk both governments and individuals should consider seriously.
Sources: HowStuffWorks.com has a good description of e-cigarettes I referred to at http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/everyday-innovations/electronic-cigarette1.htm, and I also referred to Wikipedia's articles on electronic cigarettes, nicotine, and propylene glycol.