, Salem, MA

September 16, 2013

Our view: Nanny government identifies a new target

The Salem News

---- — Let’s say at the outset that smoking is a terrible habit that brings with it a large number of health risks. But smokers have also long been the target of a hypocritical crusade by legislators who, while imposing ever more burdensome regulations on those who smoke, revel in the enormous tax revenues that smoking generates.

Smokers are outcasts from polite society, banned from engaging in their habit in restaurants, bars and workplaces, relegated to huddling in small groups outdoors, seeking whatever shelter they can find from the elements. Yet even here they are not free to indulge. Some of the more extreme practitioners of nanny government want to prohibit them from smoking on public parks and streets.

But now, it seems technology is coming to smokers’ rescue. New, electronic cigarettes supposedly eliminate all the negative public effects of smoking, such as secondhand smoke. The devices use electronics to heat and vaporize a flavored, nicotine-laced liquid. Smokers inhale the vapor and get the nicotine they desire without all the other harmful components found in ordinary cigarette smoke.

Now, smokers of these “e-cigarettes” are trying to come in out of the cold, fighting their way back into public spaces.

It’s enough to make the nanny state tremble.

Government isn’t going down without a fight, however. There’s new legislation here in Massachusetts designed to put e-smokers back in their place.

One aspect of the legislation is a positive one. A bill before the Legislature would prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors.

“Most people assume that our laws cover that issue (of sales to minors),” state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez told the Statehouse News Service last month. The Jamaica Plain Democrat is sponsoring the ban on sales to minors. “That is what we are trying to get at. How do we make sure we keep nicotine, in any forms, and nicotine delivery, out of the hands of minors?”

Banning sales to minors makes sense and should become law. We ban the sale of ordinary cigarettes to minors because we do not want them to become addicted to nicotine and suffer the deleterious health effects caused by a lifetime of smoking. We ban sales to minors and not to adults because minors, society believes, are incapable of making informed, rational decisions and behave impulsively.

E-cigarettes do not change this rationale at all. Their sale to minors should be prohibited.

But the legislation would also extend the ban on smoking ordinary cigarettes in public places to electronic cigarettes. There is no rational basis for this legislation.

Smoking is prohibited in enclosed public spaces because there is convincing evidence that secondhand smoke poses a health risk even to nonsmokers. But there is no such evidence that the vapor exhaled by those who smoke e-cigarettes poses any health risks whatsoever. Banning smokers of electronic cigarettes reflects nothing more than an irrational fear of and animus toward those with personal preferences that differ from our own.

While no sensible person would claim electronic cigarettes are a health device, some smokers use them to wean themselves off nicotine altogether. Some 1 in 5 smokers now report using e-cigarettes.

Unless hard evidence can prove these devices pose some threat to nonsmokers, we ought to leave adult e-cigarette smokers alone.