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Tide Turning, Signs Indicate

A sea change was perceptible this past weekend in the way electronic cigarettes are discussed in the American press and on the Internet.

The Washington Post, long a revered pillar of the press establishment, and a key news source close to capital decision makers, gave extended op-ed space to an article forcefully making the case for e-cigarettes. Sally Satel takes a bold stance in an editorial entitled “How e-cigarettes could save lives”, arguing not just for permission but for vigorous government promotion of e-cig use by adults.

Satel argues that we should not only eschew onerous taxation of e-cigs, but should offer free samples. “Health insurers, Veterans Affairs medical centers, companies that offer smoking-cessation programs for their employees, Medicare, Medicaid — should make the starter kits available gratis,” she says. Public use in recreational establishment should be not only permitted but welcomed, she opines, and the similarity to cigarette smoking, so loathed by smoking ban activists, should be used as a persuasive hook to induce switching from combustibles.

Satel is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a prominent right-wing think tank that has long been an advocate of pro-business policies. This will, of course, not go unnoticed. The blog of e-cig foe Stan Glantz recently made the cavalier accusation that e-cig advocacy by scholars at consultancies like the Heritage Foundation and the AEI shows them to be in lock step with Big Tobacco. There is no question that these agencies often speak for business interests, or that Big Tobacco, despite the setbacks of recent decades, remains one of the nation's biggest businesses. But to view this as a refutation of Satel's arguments would be an ad hominem, an argument “to the person”, saying that an idea is wrong because the person enunciating the idea is bad. Satel does allow that “it doesn’t help that major tobacco companies are now investing in e-cigarettes,” but doesn't chide them any further.

Satel addresses the “gateway” issue, the question of whether e-cigs might induce users, particularly underage ones, to progress toward smoking, rather than the other way around. She is one of the first in the mainstream press to notice that the significant reduction in teen smoking reported by a CDC sponsored study at the University of Michigan in December, concomitant with the significant increase in e-cig use, reported with much hand-wringing by the CDC itself in September, is a robust indicator that the trajectory moves the opposite direction. The inescapable conclusion afforded by the juxtaposition of these two studies is one the smoking ban activists have studiously avoided making. It seems as though they have a personal commitment to the unsupported conjecture of the infamous “gateway effect”, which they often put forward as a justification for strictures against e-cigs, just as though it were a proven fact.

Another refreshing novelty in Satel's article is that she mentions concentration levels when she notes the presence of harmful substances in vapor (tiny concentrations) and cigarette smoke (huge concentrations). One signal failure of press reporting on this issue has been that opponents of e-cigs are wont to gasp with horror at the fact that harmful chemicals are present in vapor, and they strategically avoid noticing that they are present at levels about the same as in the air you breathe when you walk down the street. Satel mentions concentrations, and let us hope the rest of the press will follow her lead.

The crux of her argument is that those who would place onerous strictures on e-cigarettes are basing the action on a slight possibility of a slight danger, but their action would deter a helping agent that would obviously reduce harm, we just don't know yet how much. Vaping might only be 100 times safer than smoking, or it might be 1000 times safer than smoking. Since we can't be sure of that answer for a couple of decades, let people continue smoking during those decades, the e-cig opponents are saying. Satel's voice rings clear against this insanity, and we should be grateful to the Post for letting it be heard.

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