Monday, July 16, 2018

Exploding E-Cigarettes and Ethical Theories

A recent article in the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum describes how numerous users of e-cigarettes have received injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening when their devices caught fire or exploded.  E-cigarettes work by vaporizing a solution of nicotine and flavoring with a hot wire powered by a high-energy-density lithium-ion battery.  Lithium-ion batteries are in everything from mobile phones to airliners, but the particular design of e-cigarettes makes them especially hazardous in this application.  The high power required by the heater means that the battery is operating perilously near the maximum output current that it can maintain without overheating itself.  And if there are any manufacturing defects in the battery, as can often happen if substandard components are used by a fly-by-night manufacturer with inadequate quality control, the e-cigarette user ends up carrying around what amounts to a small pipe bomb.

The consequences can be dire.  The article tells the story of Otis Gooding, whose e-cigarette went off in his pants pocket, injuring both his thigh and the hand he used to try to get rid of it.  Other users have lost eyes, teeth, and parts of their cheeks to explosions and fires.

Anecdotes, however harrowing, do not constitute numerical evidence that the typical e-cigarette user is taking his or her life in their hands when they light up.  But various sources have estimated that the incidents of e-cigarette explosions or fires is in the dozens if not hundreds a year. 

The e-cigarette market had total sales exceeding $2 billion in 2016, and assuming the average user spends $150 a year on the habit, that means over 10 million people in the U. S. are likely regular users.  Say 100 of these have fireworks-type problems with their devices, and that amounts to an incidence of 1 per 100,000 per year, which is the type of ratio that public-health epidemiologists like to use.  Just to put that in perspective, deaths in the U. S. from lung cancer in the period 2011-2015 averaged about 43 per 100,000.  One of the advantages touted for e-cigarettes is that they don’t produce the tar and other nasty stuff that leads to lung cancer in regular cigarette smokers.  While e-cigarettes haven’t been around long enough for this assertion to be empirically verified—nobody  has been an e-cigarette user for forty years yet—there is probably something to this argument.

And such an argument would appeal to a certain type of ethical theorist called a utilitarian.  Utilitarians decide what the right thing is to do based on the greatest good for the greatest number.  A utilitarian might look at this situation and say, “Okay, we have Case A and Case B.  In Case A, 10 million people satisfy their craving for nicotine with plain old coffin-nails, and as a result a good many more than 43 of them die of lung cancer every year.  In Case B, we have the same 10 million people smoking e-cigarettes.  A lot fewer of them die of lung cancer, at the price of only one unlucky person whose e-cigarette explodes in his face.  Clearly, Case B is better.”

And if you put it that way, it’s hard to argue the point.  But we don’t live idealized lives in which we’re always choosing between two clearly-defined cases.  And if I were an e-cigarette user (which I am not), I would still be concerned about the chances that my device could blow up or catch fire.  But the utilitiarian won’t help me.

So I go looking in the catalog of ethical theories and find something called virtue ethics.  Basically, virtue ethics encourages cultivation of the virtues, of which there are almost as many as there are virtue ethicists.  Of the virtues we could choose from, I’ll pick one that doesn’t have a particularly fancy name, but will work for our purposes:  thoughtfulness. 

If you open a cabinet door while making breakfast one morning, and then think to close it afterwards not because you want to (open cabinet doors don’t bother you at all) but because your wife has a thing about open cabinet doors, you’re being thoughtful.  What does thoughtfulness say about the situation of defective e-cigarettes leading to explosions and fires?

Well, it draws attention to the proximate causes of those explosions and fires, which in most cases prove to be defective lithium-ion batteries supplied by shady manufacturers who are almost exclusively in China, which is where most of the devices and their components are made.  Now there’s over a billion people in China, and probably most of them are doing the best they can in their lives, trying to improve their lot and fulfill their obligations.  China is a haven for entrepreneurs right now, especially in the exploding (so to speak) growth market of e-cigarettes.  And in a world economy where low prices speak louder than almost any other consideration, the organization that can underbid everybody else tends to get the business.  And so probably the management of a shady lithium-ion battery factory feels caught between the rock of maintaining quality and reliability on the one hand, and the hard place of not pricing their product above the minimum needed to get the business. 

The virtue ethicists would tell the makers of e-cigarettes to clean up their act.  “How would you like to be one of the customers whose lips are sent to Kingdom Come by one of your bad batteries?” they might ask.  Of course, if one company spends the money to improve the quality of their batteries, there may be another one around the corner willing to skip quality control and underbid the first company.  The e-cigarette makers who buy batteries also have reputations to uphold, and so they could also pay attention to the sermon of a virtue ethicist and take more responsibility for the quality of their products.  In any event, it’s easy to see that virtue ethics provides you with more reasons to do something about this situation than utilitarianism does.

This is not to say that utilitiarianism is useless.  In situations where there are lots of data to work with, utilitarian analyses can clarify choices between comparable courses of action.  But sooner or later, it always runs up against the questions of how to quantify good, and who to include in the greatest number.  And there are no universally agreed-upon answers to those questions.

Sources:  The print version of IEEE Spectrum carried the article “When E-Cigarettes Go Boom” on pp. 42-45 of the July 2018 issue.  A briefer version appeared on their website in February 2018 at  The statistic about lung cancer was obtained from, and the sales figures for e-cigarettes are from

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