Boston’s ban on e-cigarettes shows what’s really driving the war on smoking: a weird desire to re-engineer our lifestyles.
Seven years have passed since Massachusetts became the sixth US state to introduce a state-wide indoor smoking ban. But officials there still haven’t kicked the habit of lifestyle engineering. Now they are going after electronic cigarettes, devices that smokers have so far been able to use in places where real cigarettes are prohibited, or even as an aide to quitting tobacco.
No more. As of last week, e-cigarettes are harder to come by for residents of Boston, the Massachusetts state capital, and there are fewer places where they can legally use them. That’s because the Boston Public Health Commission voted to start treating e-cigarettes as a tobacco product. Tough new restrictions were introduced with immediate effect and so Bostonians can no longer use e-cigarettes in workplaces, including on patios, decks and loading docks. The sale of e-cigs is now also restricted to adults only and retailers have to obtain a special permit to sell them and then keep them behind the counter.
At least 10 other Massachusetts communities have imposed restrictions on e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that often resemble real cigarettes but come in hundreds of different flavours and produce nicotine-infused vapour instead of smoke. The Boston Board of Health justified the new rules by explaining that e-cigarette solution contains nicotine and a number of toxic chemicals and carcinogens, and that their safety has not yet been established by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Proponents of e-cigarettes disagree. Many users claim it has helped wean them off tobacco and point out that the electronic devices do not smell of nicotine and are less of a bother to other people than regular cigarettes. Some health advocates, too, say there are studies that show e-devices contain no more hazardous chemicals than other nicotine-replacement products, such as patches and chewing gums, and that they can be used as a successful smoking cessation tool. Furthermore, as there are no butts, e-cigarettes also produce much less litter than regular ones.
In any case, the clampdown on the battery-powered, scented inhalers has little to do with scientific proof. After all, the Boston Board of Health did not say that e-cigs are demonstrably dangerous - just that they haven’t yet been proven to be safe. It’s a kind of Rumsfeldian unknown unknown, used to justify a precautionary intervention.
Instead, the clampdown is a logical continuation of the narrowing of individual choice that the initial smoking ban in Boston and elsewhere embodied. It’s about rendering certain lifestyle choices unacceptable, regardless of objective measures of their relative harm or harmlessness. In this respect, a statement by Dr Nancy Rigotti, director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, was telling. She told the Boston Globe that her concern with e-cigarettes is that they mimic smoking. She said cigarettes are a powerful force in American culture and allowing e-cigarettes to be used in the workplace ‘reintroduces the idea of cigarettes into what are currently smoke-free environments and begins to renormalise tobacco use in these products’.
Rigotti’s concern, echoed by others, is that sucking on an inhaler looks unsavoury and after putting so much effort into banning smoking, the authorities apparently don’t want to let citizens engage in something that resembles it. After all these years of lobbying and legislation to render smoking unacceptable, they seem to be thinking, they’ll be damned if Americans are seduced into believing that even simulating smoking is the done thing. So perhaps the very act of putting any narrow object in-between your fingers, bringing it to your mouth, breathing in and exhaling should be banned, too?
Looking back at the timeline of tobacco bans in Boston, it seems the real addicts are the anti-smoking activists. They seem to have become hooked on advocating ever more draconian bans ever since experiencing the rush from succeeding in stamping out smoking in workplaces.
Back in 2004, then Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (currently a front-runner contender for the Republican presidential nomination) signed off legislation prohibiting smoking in all workplaces in the state, including restaurants and bars. In Boston, upmarket cigar bars, salons and hookah lounges got a 10-year reprieve, but there are barely a dozen of those around in the city and no new ones are permitted to open. In 2008, new restrictions were introduced which gave Boston among the most stringent anti-smoking laws in the US at the time. Drugstores and college campuses were prevented from selling cigarettes and smoking was eliminated from outdoor patios of restaurants and bars. Earlier this year, city councillors proposed a ban on smoking in public parks and beaches. And last week, along with the reclassification of e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, Boston prohibited the sale of low-cost, single-sale cigars. Next year, Boston will also introduce a ban on smoking in public housing.
Most of these restrictions on tobacco sales and smoking in public places have been backed up by studies claiming that the dangers of secondhand smoke justify intervention. But when it comes to the new e-cigarette rules, Boston authorities are barely even bothering to back up their decisions with scientific evidence.
The decision to equate e-cigarettes with tobacco in order to justify restricting them has laid bare what the war on smoking is really about: defining what is an acceptable lifestyle and making it ever tougher for citizens to deviate from it. What a filthy habit.