Kings County, in Washington State, has banned the use of the e-cigarette in public places because it "threatens to undermine the social norming impact [of smoking bans]" and because e-cigarettes "cause confusion". This is an intriguing and dangerous development in 'tobacco control' since there is no evidence that e-cigarettes pose a health risk to the user, let alone to those around them.
I put the words 'tobacco control' in scare quotes because while this is undoubtedly a matter of control, it is no longer a genuine tobacco issue, let alone a smoking issue. Just as the anti-smoking movement became an anti-tobacco movement, so the anti-tobacco movement has become an anti-nicotine movement. When you have people campaigning against a product because it looks like a cigarette, it is difficult to sustain the delusion that we are not in the grips of scientifically illiterate, hysterical and—above all—moral crusade.
The Board of Health states that because e-cigarettes resemble cigarettes, they might cause "confusion and concern [to] the owners of those establishments who seek to comply with the Smoking in Public Places Regulations." Apparently, the possibility of causing confusion is now a legitimate reason for making an activity illegal in the United States of America.
The Health Board overstates the similarities between e-cigarettes and their combustible cousins. E-cigarette vapour dissipates within seconds. They leave no smell. Many of them are multi-coloured and look about as much like a cigarette as a pencil does. Above all, they don't cause cancer, but that doesn't deter those who want to ban e-cigarettes entirely from promoting a campaign that will lead to e-cig users returning to the real health hazard they had successfully given up.
Like all new products, e-cigarettes are bound to attract curious glances at first but this will disappear once people are familiar with them. Maybe some people will react with confusion and concern, but—and this is the real point—so what?
Ladyboys cause confusion and concern. Kerry Katona causes confusion and concern. My tax returns cause confusion and concern. It's not the government's business to protect sentient beings from confusion and concern. If the state must take a role in the e-cigarette issue it should be to quell the confusion through honest information and alleviate the concern with facts. And the facts are that e-cigarettes are, at worst, 99% safer than cigarettes, they create no secondhand smoke and they seem to be a damn fine substitute for smoking.
The idea that the government has to act to uphold "social norms" is particularly sinister. Quite simply, it is not for the government to decide what is normal and what is abnormal. Civil society decides what is normal and the concept of normality varies from person to person and community to community. And so it should.
A system that allows different people to plough their own furrow has been working just fine for years, thanks. And even if we did require a one-size-fits-all benchmark for normality, it is unlikely that we would turn to the inherently freakish collection of politicians and single-issue campaigners to provide it. You uphold your social norms and I'll uphold mine. K?
(For you early risers, I'll be making a similar point but less well and with more hesitation on BBC Radio 4's Today programme tomorrow. Or not, depending on what hits the cutting room floor.)