Puff, puff, puff.
I thought the thing about tobacco cigarettes was their smoke.
Tobacco contains chemicals that become carcinogens when burned, and that was the main reason why smoking has been banned across most of North America. And rightfully so, I might add, since one of the chemicals naturally found in tobacco, nicotine, is an extremely addictive substance, which can in fact hook smokers into a potentially deadly dependence on burning tobacco.
Then along came nicotine vapor in the form of an electronic cigarette, a narrow tube containing a battery, a miniature heating element, and a vial of liquid nicotine. E-cigarettes are made in the same size and shape as a conventional cigarette. The battery powers the heating element which warms the liquid nicotine and creates the vapor. Smokers of the traditional tobacco, who had become addicted to nicotine, were encouraged to give e-cigarettes a try, because they could still get their nic fix, but without the cancer-causing smoke.
Sure, nicotine still isn't good for you either, not only because it can be addictive, but also because it can over-stimulate your heart. But at least with e-cigs, smokers aren't choking themselves to death, along with anybody else around whom they're smoking. The vapor released is non-toxic, and can be odorless. You can even purchase vials of liquid with zero amount of nicotine, for just the smoky vapor effect. Problem pretty much solved, right?
Well, not so fast, apparently.
Originally invented in China, electronic cigarettes were introduced to North American in 2007, but only within the past year or so have they suddenly burst onto the social scene as the latest high-style fad. Manufacturers of e-cigs discovered that they could market their product not just in sterile, medicinal-looking plastic tubes, but in fashionable colors and designer patterns that traditional, tobacco cigarettes could never have sported. Just change out the vial of liquid nicotine when it's used up, and the battery when it expires, and the user is good to go again. Buy several styles to match multiple outfits in your wardrobe.
Sure, they can cost anywhere from $60 to $150 apiece, but as a fashion accessory, those prices aren't any more prohibitive than a bottle of trendy perfume or cologne, a bling watch, or even a belt. Besides, when something's in style, who worries about its cost? Plus, e-cigarettes don't come with those crushing sin taxes. And they won't kill you.
Suddenly, having a thin plastic stick hanging out from your mouth, or dangling between your fingers, is chic again.
After all, one of the alluring factors of traditional smokes was the odd way they somehow make smokers look more sophisticated. For years, anti-smoking advocates waged an incessant campaign against the tobacco industry over its advertising that made smoking look cool, alluring, and grown-up to children.
Plus, cigarettes give their users something to do with their hands, even if it is the nicotine causing them to be more restless and fidgety than they'd be without one.
And then there's what nobody likes to admit: that cigars and cigarettes represent the classic oral fixation. Smoking tobacco or vaporized nicotine is only part of the deal. It's still hard to ignore what sticking a tube-shaped object into one's mouth mimics: a Freudian pastime that can be done in public without overtly betraying one's lust for sexual gratification. Frankly - and I know this will offend some people, but think about it - I've sometimes wondered if the social and legal clamp-down on smoking has in some way contributed to what appears to be a rise in homosexual activity in North America. Back in the day, before science proved how dangerous smoking is, might male smokers, to a certain degree, have masked whatever homoerotic tendencies they may have secretly harbored with a stogie or a pack of Marlboro's?
Hey - you don't think the Marlboro Man appealed just to women, do you?
But there's still the question about that vapor, which, remember, contains nicotine. How safe is nicotine vapor? How might it affect innocent inhalers who are nearby the person "smoking" an e-cig? What other ingredients might manufacturers be putting in those vials of liquid nicotine? Some of them come in exotic flavors, but so far, no government rules for listing the chemicals used to create those aromatic flavors exist. And if consumers are buying e-cigs for the different flavors, might we end up back where we started with traditional cigarettes, and the unpleasant odors they emit?
Public health advocates are starting to raise flags all over the country, and here in Mansfield, Texas, southeast of Fort Worth, the city council last night put a moratorium on new shops selling e-cigarettes until further studies are done on them. Officials want to know more about what goes into e-cigarettes, whether the flavors increasingly being offered help tempt kids into using e-cigarettes as a gateway habit to smoking the real thing. Mansfield is the second city in the larger Fort Worth - Dallas metropolitan area to take a stand against e-cigarettes, the other being Richardson, north of Big D, which is thinking about requiring a special use permit for stores wanting to sell e-cigs. At least 86 cities in Massachusetts have already addressed this issue in some form or fashion, as bans have been enacted by governing bodies in locales as diverse as suburban Los Angeles, small-town Minnesota, and some school districts in Oklahoma.
While the reaction to the surprising popularity of e-cigarettes seems to involve mostly a concern over how safe they are for children, it's obvious that a lot of people really don't know what e-cigarettes are. Some proponents of the new fad wonder if America's legacy tobacco industry isn't secretly behind some of the outcry against this new product; a product that could significantly erode what market share conventional cigarettes have left. Then, too, even some fans of e-cigs confess to feeling uncomfortable "lighting up" indoors, and will smoke their smokeless smokes outside, along with those other people who are still trying to kick the habit.
Not that e-cigs will definitely be the next big, bad habit. Right now, it's hard to prove how unhealthy or immoral they might be. Meanwhile, if you're wondering if I'd light one up, I can categorically say that I've never considered smoking in any form to be sexy. And it would take a lot more than e-cigs to make me look sophisticated. Plus, my heart doesn't need any more stressors in addition to my main oral fixation, which, as you can tell just by looking at me, is food.
For the e-cig industry, a reliance upon the chemical dependency that nicotine - in even a vapor form - can create might be enough to build a new, sustainable customer base. And being able to customize their ciggys into designer fashion accessories could be icing on their vapor cake, at least for a while.
However, wouldn't you think huffing and puffing over strawberry-flavored steam would be unique, cool, interesting, stylish, and compelling for only so long? Even if health authorities end up running their studies and determine that there's little harm to be done by e-cigs, how likely might it be that by the time these studies have been finished, the fad is over? The trend will have faded? The vapor will have dissipated?
Yes, where there's smoke, there's usually fire. But not necessarily.