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E-cigs: politically correct political incorrectness?

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Want to look like Don Draper without breaking the law? Meet Chinese export the electronic cigarette.

While the men and women of science often appear to spend the bulk of their time dreaming up novel ways to sink great sums of money into projects with limited utility for humanity at large, every so often they invent something that truly benefits us all. In 1952, the refreshment wizards at Kirsch Beverages figured out how to produce zero-calorie soda. In 1961, G.D. Searle & Company gave us the Pill. And in 2004, a Chinese company called Ruyan created electronic cigarettes.

Over the last year, these devices, which deliver nicotine to their users in the form of vapor instead of smoke, have grown increasingly prominent. In July, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it had concerns about the safety of these products, citing the “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals” it found when testing two popular brands. In September, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal to sell electronic cigarettes there. Leo DiCaprio, Tom Petty and everyone’s favorite style icon, Kevin Federline, have all been photographed “vaping” in public.

Unlike other cigarette alternatives, e-cigarettes don’t just retain the nicotine of the original article, but also the prop value. Stick a patch on your arm, and no one’s going to mistake you for Don Draper, even if you spend all day inhaling with rueful circumspection. Stick a piece of gum in your mouth, and no one is going to mistake you for Betty Draper, even if you spend all day exhaling with wan discontent. With an electronic cigarette, you still get to rock all your best smoking moves like an air-guitar champ jamming on his phantom Fender.

Indeed, hands-on engagement isn’t just optional, it’s required—and even people wasting their lives in the pursuit of vice enjoy a little busy work and the responsibility of looking after their paraphernalia. The junkie has his works to fuss with. The chronic knitter has her needles. The vaper has a pleasure stick so complicated it could break in multiple ways.

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For all its virtues, however, the e-cigarette is still the tobacco equivalent of a toupee. From across a room, or even from across a medium-sized table if the room is dark enough, it may be fairly convincing. But it’s still silly. That people are currently buying them so readily only proves just how effectively anti-smoking advocates have glamorized cigarettes in recent years.

Back in the days when you could smoke anywhere at any time, cigarettes were no more alluring than stale donuts and bad coffee. Harried, underachieving salesmen puffed on them furiously as they failed to meet their monthly quotas. Sad-sack accountants measured out their grim, monotonous days one butt at a time. Then, cigarettes were banished from the workplace to special outdoor holding pens. Overnight, that transformed them into human doggie biscuits, a reward at break-time, the thing to order one’s day around. When smoking was exiled from bars and restaurants, only the ultra-privileged could get away with smoking in these places, a fact that further transformed a filthy, largely pointless habit into an act of sexy defiance.

Now, New York City wants to follow the leads of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago and ban smoking in parks. Some condo owners in Belmont, California, aren’t even allowed to smoke in their own homes. In such an environment, the rhetorical power of vaping is obvious. It’s an act of civil disobedience that isn’t actually illegal. You can blow cherry-scented vapor in the face of any self-appointed deputy of the nanny-state who insists you can’t smoke in public because you’re not actually smoking in public. Nor are you jeopardizing their well-being in any significant way. Vaping may just well be the first politically correct form of political incorrectness.

Still, a potential vaping epidemic is not without an enormous upside. As smoking declined, people needed something to do with their hands, and not everyone wanted to be a heroin addict or knit sweaters. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and to fill the void in our lives, we took to texting and tweeting. Now look where we are. We spell “are you” RU. We apprehend the world in 140-character lifebites. Whatever trace amounts of diethylene glycol may lurk within the cartridges of your favorite e-cigarette, they can’t be any less healthy than spending hours each day trading quips about Balloon Boy with a handful of virtual strangers.

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