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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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July 15th, 2010

Health v Morality: E-cigarettes


If Joe the Camel cigarette ads were geared toward the guys, Camel’s recent ads are targeted straight at teenage girls, say anti-smoking activists. I mean, they’re pink, for heaven’s sake. And a clear play on Chanel’s perfume. Camel No 9 Ad1

So that’s bad. But what seems even crazier to me is that, at the same time as the tobacco companies are marketing a dangerous product to young women, there are other young women who are fighting against what seems to be a much safer substitute: e-cigarettes.

Mara Zrzavy, a 16-year-old high-school student joined with other activists to encourage New Hampshire to ban the use of e-cigarettes by minors. Her argument is that kids who wouldn’t otherwise smoke will start with e-cigs, because they are cool gadgets, and then move on to the real thing when they get hooked.

Camel No 9 Ad2Don’t get me wrong. Kids shouldn’t be smoking anything. And we don’t want to encourage kids who would otherwise not smoke to start. (Although they are: Check out this study about how preteens are more likely to abuse household products as drugs than anything else.) But since we know that kids are going to at least try it anyway, let’s be realistic:

Shouldn’t we crack down on the things we know cause cancer? And be open to some safer alternatives?

Since 2006, e-cigarettes, electronic nicotine delivery devices that contain no tobacco and emit no smoke, have been available in the United States. While they look like real thing, e-cigarettes use a metal tube with a battery to heat the nicotine cartridge, and then people inhale water vapor that packs the same punch as smoking a cigarette – but without the negative health effects of inhaling smoke.

E-cigs were launched as way to help folks quit smoking. Really, it’s the same as wearing a nicotine patch, plus the bonus of being able to pretend you’re actually smoking. And since a big part of the habit is the oral fixation of something to do with your hands and lips at a bar, in conversation, at a tense moment, e-cigs are a brilliant alternative.

While all the tests aren’t in yet, scientists are pretty sure that smoking an e-cigarette is a lot better for you than smoking the old-fashioned kind. It’s the burning and inhaling of tobacco smoke that’s linked with lung cancer and a myriad of other diseases, not the nicotine itself. But it’s the nicotine that gives you the buzz, the short-lived high, the burst of energy.

Yet, for some reason, e-cigarettes aren’t catching on. Indeed, in some states, they are being vilified. And this is where the morality question comes in. Because if it’s not the health effects we’re concerned about, it’s something else. Getting high? The act of smoking in and of itself? Hmmm…

If health were our only concern, then e-cigarettes would be encouraged as the go-to option for any smoker. The reason they aren’t being embraced nationwide is two-fold:

  1. We think getting a buzz for pleasure is morally wrong. It’s our Puritan heritage, perhaps.
  2. We think that smoking is disgusting and a sign of moral weakness, and shouldn’t be tolerated in any form.

I’m a bit more sympathetic to this second argument, but it’s flawed as well because, really, if there aren’t health effects, why should we care?

Kids shouldn’t be smoking anything. But if Camel cigarettes are getting pretty in pink, I’d really like to see some other attractive, free-market alternatives.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • http://internationalvaporgroup.com/wholesale.aspx Shannon McGough

    Agree with that, kids should not be smoking anything, electronic cigarettes are safer that doesn’t mean that children can also use them.

  • Lisa

    As a health care provider, I take issue with e-cigs, not only because they are cool gadgets that teens will find trendy. But also the false belief that nicotine without the smoke is safe. We know that chewing tobacco causes oral cancers. Within seconds of absorption, blood vessels constrict, heart rate increases, and gastric motility jumps. For people with many underlying health conditions, this can have significantly negative effects. Putting nicotine into your body in any form is not safe. Perhaps safER than smoking a real cigarette, but not safe. Teens see things in a more black and white fashion that the rest of us: safe or dangerous. Too many of them will decide (because their friend told them) that e-cigs are completely safe. So, while I am concerned that teens will be attracted to them, I am a bit torn. I personally know folks who have significantly decreased their regular cig smoking and substitute e-cigs. Are they okay if someone smokes less or quits because of them?
    And as far as the immorality of marketing products that are unhealthy, we could go through the average grocery store and empty the place of doughnuts, alcohol, chips, and twinkies… The impact diabetes and obesity on the health of our society is huge, yet we don’t police what people chose to eat (yet).

  • Victoria

    I think that one of the issues is that they are still ‘pretending’ to smoke. They are still going through the motions of smoking. They are still having the expectations of smoking. They can still get addicted to the nicotine. If e-cigarettes were invented to decrease one’s smoking habit, I think that preteens and teens using them goes against their intended purposes. I’m in a substance abuse counseling class at the moment, and one thing we talked about is that if you want to quit an undesired behavior, like smoking or drinking, then you should change your environment. Don’t have triggers around you until you have the strength to resist the temptation. I feel like having nicotine being distributed in this way does not sound like the ideal or best way to kick the habit. If the kids want to be “cool” and smoke, give them candy cigs.
    One thing that we should be making some noise about is why are tobacco industries still targeting preteens with their advertisements? I feel the morality in the whole case for smoking comes in when we think about the consequences due to smoking. We know using tobacco kills. We know smoking causes cancer (both inhaled and chewed forms of tobacco). Those are huge statements. If we know that smoking has a risk of killing us, 1.) why are millions of people still smoking? and 2.) why are we still allowing something that can kill us to be produced and sold?
    The church says that abortion is wrong, and shouldn’t be done because it kills human lives. Smoking kills too. What does the church say about that? I think that when talking about the morality of smoking, we should look at the big picture and see how human life is being treated by the tobacco industries in these situations. We also should be open and respectful to those who are addicted to tobacco. Advertisers, marketers, and our own culture has told the public that smoking is ok. It’s no wonder that so many people start smoking. We need to be respectful and supportive if they do decide to quit.

  • Manny

    From the catholic perspective a reason we should be concerned with e-cigarettes as we are with real cigarettes is not physical one but a metaphysical. I think you are probably correct in asserting that e-cigarettes form a less destructive habit than real ones. However an addiction to either still imposes a loss of freedom on our parts and makes us a slave to itself. We know that the physically addictive aspect of smoking comes from the nicotine while the psychological addictions come from other aspects. To me it seems that cigarettes or e-cigarettes are both designed to first impart a physical addiction on our bodies and accordingly loose our freedom to choose: when we smoke (urges/regular smoking breaks), moderation (chain smoking), and affects the clarity of our thought (distractions due to the desire. These concerns are not driven by a false puritanism but legitimate Catholic world view.

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