Proposals to regulate e-cigarettes exemplify the unnecessary expansion of government jurisdiction and illustrate how government efforts to micromanage individual behaviour can be counterproductive and harmful.
E-cigarettes can help combat addiction and researchers argue that consuming them poses dramatically fewer risks than do real cigarettes. There is also a lack of evidence that e-cigarettes encourage abuse or catalyze youth smoking rates, although politicians repeatedly cite this in their defense of prohibitive legislation regulating the manufacture, sale, and consumption of e-cigarettes. Nevertheless, public officials in Canada, the United States, and the European Union are implementing (or considering) a combination of legal and regulatory constraints aimed at discouraging e-cigarette consumption in an attempt to promote the “public interest.” Local governments in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York have legislated restrictions ranging from limitations on publicly consuming e-cigarettes to regulations constraining businesses from selling them. In Canada, provincial governments in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia are contemplating similar legislation.
The state has a basic obligation to protect its citizens from harm. It includes, for instance, protecting the country’s borders and safeguarding individuals from documented threats to public health. Delimiting the extent to which government authorities exercise this responsibility legitimately is the primary source of conflict. This requires a prudent balance of diligence and oversight that is admittedly difficult to achieve, and, in some instances, the lines are genuinely blurred. Regulating e-cigarettes, however, does not constitute one of these cases and restricting access to them is an example of curbing individual preferences unnecessarily.
To begin with, claims that e-cigarette consumption has significant negative health effects are unsupported by the facts. Studies conducted Harvard and Boston University show that e-cigarettes are an effective method of smoking cessation. They reveal how e-cigarettes reduce tobacco cravings by creating a “placebo effect,” whereby smokers perceive similar sensations despite inhaling dramatically lower levels of nicotine (in addition to the other toxins found in real cigarettes that make them unhealthy). In fact, there is evidence that e-cigarettes are more effective than nicotine patches for quitting and thousands of individuals have used them to quit smoking successfully. Other studies indicate that e-cigarette users are primarily those who smoke in the first place, allying concerns that the prospect of a “safer alternative” lures non-smokers into consuming nicotine.
Similarly, there is no evidence that e-cigarette “vapours” are a threat to public health. In a study commissioned by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA), for example, Drexel University’s School of Public Health determined that, “by the standards of occupational hygiene, current data do not indicate that exposures to … contaminants in electronic cigarettes warrant a concern.” Dr. Joel Nitzkin, Chair of the Tobacco Control Task Force for the American Association of Public Health Physicians (AAPHP), also argues that their vapours pose few risks to users and no risk to the public. In a recent interview, for example, Nitzkin stated that, “[There is] every reason to believe that the hazard posed by e-cigarettes would be much lower than one per cent, probably lower than one tenth of one per cent of the hazard posed by regular cigarettes.”
Certainly, e-cigarettes are new products and there are concerns about their long-term effect on individual health, which is why researchers caution that further analysis is necessary. However, prospective harm should not justify restricting access to a tool that facilitates smoking cessation and has large and demonstrable health benefits.
Restricting access to e-cigarettes is just one example of intrusive government initiatives designed to protect individuals from themselves, which include banning large soft drinks in New York City, making it illegal for children under the age of eight to inflate balloons in Europe, and outlawing doorknobs in private residences in Vancouver and Halifax.
In any case, the state’s jurisdiction over issues that risk public health and safety is clear. Instead of justifying the unnecessary expansion of government using hypothetical scenarios, however, it should exercise this authority only when there is an identifiable threat to the public. On this issue, the government should butt-out.
Shaun Fantauzzo is a policy analyst at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca)
*This piece appeared in opinion section of Troy Media, the Province, the New Glasgow News, and the Chronicle Herald