NYT Op-Eds vs. E-Cigs: Talking Loud (and Long) and Saying Nothing

The nicotine molecule. If the gateway argument were true, wouldn’t everyone hooked on cigarettes graduate to injecting straight nicotine?I am perplexed by the New York Times’ coverage of e-cigarettes and snus (a type of Swedish smokeless tobacco that is demonstrably far less harmful than smoking).

On the one hand, the Times is to be lauded for recognizing these new forms of nicotine consumption as a topic with potential major implications for our health, and thus one worthy of serious coverage.

On the other hand, it seems that they have taken it upon themselves to be the national nanny/scold on the topic.

Last week they reported that the CDC announced a dramatic rise in teen use of e-cigarettes, while also noting that the CDC’s report buried a contrasting statistic—a dramatic, unprecedented fall in teen smoking of traditional combustible cigarettes.

This should be a good thing, no?

And yet today the Times devotes almost 1,400 words to two separate editorials, one by their own op-ed board and one by guest writers. Both of these editorials urge the need to regulate e-cigarettes in a similar way to conventional cigarettes, alluding to the potential harms, dangers and risks of e-cigarettes. Yet neither offers a single documented fact substantiating even one of those harms, dangers or risks!

And what are those alleged harms, dangers and risks? I suppose the most supportable one mentioned might be that nicotine may change the adolescent brain. The editorials don’t say that it damages the adolescent brain, just that it may change it. If I had to guess how it may change the adolescent brain, my guess would be that it may make the adolescent brain crave nicotine. 

To which I reply, so what? Don’t caffeine (or Pop-Tarts, for that matter) change the adolescent brain this way? I categorically reject the notion that all substance addiction or dependence is equivalent. I have never missed a day of work with a coffee or e-cigarette hangover. I have never robbed a bank or burglarized homes to get money to buy caffeine or nicotine.

The other canard both editorials fall back on is that e-cigarettes may—not that there is one iota of proof about this—but that they may lead kids to start smoking traditional cigarettes. The “gateway drug” argument, in other words. 

As I have pointed out before, this fear-mongering tactic is not only unsupported by evidence, it flies in the face of common sense. It’s equivalent to alleging that drinking beer or wine is a gateway to drinking straight grain alcohol, which we know it is not. And why isn’t it? Because drinking beer or wine is, for the vast majority of people, a much more pleasant and desirable way to consume alcohol.

It’s the same with e-cigarettes. I truly can’t imagine someone developing a nicotine habit by using e-cigarettes and then graduating to a product that is famously more dangerous, and also much more expensive and much more unpleasant to use.

Really, what the scolds’ argument should be is that e-cigarette use is a possible gateway to drinking straight e-liquid, the nicotine solution used in e-cigarettes. But they don’t make that argument, because it’s obviously specious. Yet the “gateway” canard about e-cigarettes persists.

No one is arguing that e-cigarettes are a risk-free behavior. Crossing the street is not a risk-free behavior. Drinking coffee is not a risk-free behavior. Virtually nothing we do in life is risk-free. The argument is about the relative risks and the relative harms. And it is indisputable that if every combustible tobacco smoker in this country switched to e-cigarettes, and that if every kid who experiments with nicotine does so using e-cigarettes instead of smoking combustible tobacco, the net gain to our society would be enormous and immediate.

Smoking combustible tobacco puts a healthcare burden of billions of dollars on our society every year. It kills many longtime users, often by literally leaving them gasping for their last breath. It’s time to stop equating e-cigarettes and other vastly less harmful means of nicotine consumption with cigarette smoking. It’s like comparing apples with… poisoned apples.

Any regulation of e-cigarettes should not impede their tremendous potential to reduce the enormous harm that conventional smoking does to our citizens and our society.