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Grammar abuse raises threat of cheeseburger ban

The Daily Beast has reproduced Amanda Woerner's article from health website The Daily Burn, in which she concludes, "perhaps we should think of smoking e-cigarettes the same way we think about eating cheeseburgers. Yes, they can be enjoyable. And sure, they aren’t linked as strongly to an increased risk of death as other tobacco products. But they’re linked to some potentially dangerous health problems that could affect you down the road."

Looking beyond the fundamental oddity that she is proposing strict regulation based on an analogy with something that is completely unregulated, another feature of Woesner's piece attracts attention. Not only this paragraph but the entire article is saturated with the grammatical forms we call modal verbs, or verbs "concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true." "Could be... would be... may be... should be..." and others. Modals, like the subjunctive case, are what we use to talk about possibilities, wishes, hopes, fears, hypotheses... not realities.

The quoted paragraph contains the modals "should think", "can be", and "could affect". Early in the article, she quotes her scientific expert, Norman Edelman of the Stonybrook campus of the State University of New York, with the this intriguing modal: "e-cigarette vapors may be full of suspected lung irritants, chemicals with addictive properties that could contribute to heart troubles down the road." Two modals, and several other intriguing expressions. What does it mean to be "full of" something. The concept "full" suggests high levels of concentration, percentages approaching 100. But if vapor were "full of" irritants, vapers would often complain of irritation, which they do not. Edelman must have had in mind "contain" instead of "full of". Quite different, hunh? And the very word "suspected" expresses a similar concept; a "suspicion" is a guess, a hypothesis, perhaps a fear. And that is exactly what Woerner's article is about: unfounded fears. But used as an argument for banning something millions consider beneficial.

The next paragraph features "could impact". Two paragraphs later, "might be". Later on: "might not be all that innocent". The inflammation caused by a vapor would be "similar to smoking, only less," says Edelman. "You might get a chronic cough, or raise a little mucus." Another medic, Andrew Nickels of the Mayo Clinic, is brought on board with the guess that flavors "could be a source of allergic reactions," although no one has complained to him yet.

It goes on: "vapor may act on lung cells in a way similar to cigarette smoke." As always with anti-vaping literature, there is no mention of the degree of this risk. More iterations of "if" and "may be" follow.

Woerner also cites the recent CDC report that e-cigarette use among teens has tripled – a suspect statistic, not observed by any other studies, and probably resulting from the questionnaire's treatment of a single experimental puff as "use". Then she goes on with a sentence about 3 quarters of teen (cigarette) smokers going on to smoke in adult life, treating these disparate data points, one about e-cigs, the other about real ones, as though they followed each other logically in a syllogism.

Then again, it's worth bearing in mind that the Daily Beast once featured a piece, appearing on internet searches for several years, which swallowed – hook, line, and sinker – the fantasy that FDA-approved food additive propylene glycol, which has freeze-retardant properties, is the same thing people put in their automotive radiators. I'm thinking of offering the editors a chance to send me a deposit on a beach-front condo in Phoenix.

So watch out for a threatened cheeseburger ban from the Woerner-Edelman fantasy group. It might happen.  And if you're a cheeseburger lover, be prepared to contact your congressman. Never forget Belushi's immortal words: "Cheeseburger. Cheeseburger. No Coke. Pepsi."

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