Democrats in the U.S. Senate this week introduced a bill that would ban the marketing of electronic cigarettes to minors. "We cannot risk undoing decades of progress in reducing youth smoking by allowing e-cigarette makers to target our kids," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of the bill's co-sponsors.
E-cigarettes are a burgeoning trend and growing share of the $40 billion U.S. tobacco market. Virtually unknown five years ago, e-cigarette sales could reach $1.5 billion this year, according to industry groups.
Unlike traditional cigarettes, which burn processed tobacco leaves, e-cigarette users inhale and exhale a nicotine-laced vapor. Critics say fruit- or candy-flavored vapors are designed to appeal to kids.
Should the government regulate or even ban e-cigarettes to protect kids? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
BEN BOYCHUK Tobacco use - any kind of tobacco use - brings out the Puritan in people who might otherwise espouse a live-and-let-live, "keep-your-laws-off-my-body" philosophy.
For a certain type of busybody, if it looks like a cigarette, smells like a cigarette, tastes like a cigarette, then it must be a cigarette - and therefore it's rotten, no good, probably deadly, and in desperate demand of government regulation as soon as possible. A half-century of public education warning Americans against smoking's dangers is bound to do that.
Without question, cigarette smoking is bad for your health. You shouldn't smoke - even though, despite all of those anti-smoking campaigns, public bans and high taxes, about 18 percent of American adults still smoke.
Fact is, e-cigarettes sort of resemble old-fashioned cigarettes. But they don't taste like cigarettes - in fact, many former smokers who have turned to e-cigs as a way to help kick their nasty old habit quickly realize that traditional cigarettes taste terrible.
And e-cigarettes don't smell like cigarettes, either. Vapor isn't smoke. E-cigarettes don't produce the same nasty byproducts as cigarettes, such as tar. What little research we have suggests e-cigarettes might emit trace amounts of bad stuff - hardly a cause for panic.
But the anti-smoking movement has too much invested to let a new vice that looks like a despised old one gain too much ground.
Several cities and states have already passed bans on "vaping" in the strange belief that old regulations are good enough for new technology. Now Senate Democrats would summon the ghost of Joe Camel to argue that e-cigarettes are just a high-tech version of the same old cancer sticks, using "the children" once again as human shields for their policy preferences.
Although e-cigarette makers don't market the devices as a way to quit smoking, that's how many "vapers" use them. One unintended consequence of regulating e-cigarettes the same as traditional cigarettes may be to discourage people from quitting the more dangerous habit.
Politicians are always in a rush to "do something." But a little less hyperbole, and a great deal more evidence, would do this debate a world of good.
JOEL MATHIS Have e-cigarettes demonstrated enough harm to invite regulation? Probably not yet - the science, as they say, isn't there yet. From that standpoint, anti-smoking advocates and legislators would be wise to keep their powder dry instead of launching a crusade right away.
But there's an ancient principle that suggests e-cigs are deserving, at the very least, of some regulatory scrutiny: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. And e-cigarettes - which are designed to emulate the look and feel of regular cigarettes, right down to the glowing battery-powered tips - sure do quack like a duck, don't they? What's more, they even do a duck's job. (OK, enough of that metaphor.) A cigarette's function, after all, is to deliver a dose of sweet, stimulating nicotine to the smoker's bloodstream - which is exactly the same function of the vapor hits produced by e-cigs.
Now the vapor is probably an improvement over smoke, which contains all kinds of cancerous, unhealthy chemicals. Then again: Nicotine tends to be extremely addictive. Authorities quite rightly take a dim view of any product whose primary purpose is to create a bodily craving to use the product again and again. From that standpoint, the need for regulation starts to look compelling.
The case may become more compelling when you consider this: E-cig critics see the devices as toy versions of the real thing - and thus a gateway drug to real cigarettes. Critics will scoff, but it wouldn't be the first time the tobacco industry has taken a back door to wooing new, younger customers: American society was once awash in candy cigarettes and Joe Camel cartoons designed to lure youngsters into a lifetime of smoking.
Anti-tobacco advocates have been, perhaps, too quick to threaten regulations and possible bans against e-cigarettes. It's tough to blame them, however. Cigarettes have killed millions of Americans. Better to stop the next needless holocaust in its tracks, before it gets started.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.