Status and Smoking Bans

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don't burn and don't give off smoke. But they're at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it's OK to "light up" in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here's a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to "address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes." Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity "vaping" instead of smoking.

So if it's just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I've written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain "detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed." Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what's the harm in water vapor?

There's no research to say if any of the 'detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed' might also potentially expose third-parties, but that's not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it's proven they "do no harm." In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, "we'll have to revisit" the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there's a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That's not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips' mouth.

But that hasn't stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.

And:

Some e-cig users have even taken to "stealth vaping," a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

Legal Status

Personally I've never been one for indicating a dating relationship on Facebook. Dating is about sampling with a relative ease of entry and exit, so why add a complication to what's supposed to open and free? The appropriate use of the relationship status is for the more consequential and permanent arrangements of marriage and the like, says I.

Strolling around Grant Park this evening, my neighborhood park at least until the end of my March, I was listening to this article on my iPod and thinking about Facebook's introduction of "civil union" and "domestic partnership" to its list of relationship options.  It occurred to me that the very reason I dislike Facebook for casual relationships is exactly why GLAAD was glad to see the updated options: Facebook confers legitimacy to a relationship.

It took me .26 seconds to find this video:

The status update is done lightheartedly here, but wouldn't this actually be the most culturally relevant ritual for most marriage ceremonies today? Isn't it the case that modern marriages are made most tangible in the minds of friends and family not through certificate or ceremony, but cyberspace? Sure, relationship statuses are presumably almost always backed by government guarantee, but I wonder if that will ebb in importance as cultural norms trump state fiat.

The libertarian in me gleefully looks on.

 

George Will Reads My Blog

In addition to being a frequent talking head on Ken Burns' films such as The Age of the Roosevelts (coming in 2014!), you may know George Will from his columns in the Washington Post. I don't often read him, but several blogs have approvingly linked to his column today, which offers a word of caution to those certain of Egypt's future:

[T]here is a cottage industry of Barack Obama critics who, not content with monitoring his myriad mistakes in domestic policies, insist that there must be a seamless connection of those with his foreign policy. Strangely, these critics, who correctly doubt the propriety and capacity of the U.S. government controlling our complex society, simultaneously fault the government for not having vast competence to shape the destinies of other societies. Such critics persist because, as Upton Sinclair wrote in 1935, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Here's an aphorism (otherwise known as a pre-Twitter blog post) I crafted just over two years ago:

Those who display the most vehement distrust in the ability of their government to act well in domestic affairs will often be the most fervent believers in the ability of their government to act well in foreign affairs.

The similarity is striking, is it not? One wonders whether Will happened upon my pithy wisdom and immediately pilfered it for his own use, or whether it has merely taken him two years fully to absorb the complex richness of my devastatingly original observation. Speculation could indeed run wild, but forbearance would be seemly.

In Cold Water

My former work colleague in Germany sent me today a newspaper article breathlessly describing a “scene just like from an action movie” in Schwerin. Long story short, a drunken twenty-year-old drove his Nissan Sunny (funniest part of the story for me) off the road, over a small pedestrian walkway, down some steps, and onto the frozen Pfaffenteich, which is a large pond/small lake in the middle of town. His three passengers disembarked and attempted to get the car off the ice and back up the steps--and nearly succeeded--but when the driver saw a police car, he decided to turn tail and escape by racing to the opposite shore, covering about 600 meters (2,000 feet) before the ice gave way and he and his car plunged into the dark water. The style of the article is the icing on the pond…er, cake. Perhaps channeling Truman Capote, the reporter opts to write the article in the present tense and alert us to the characters’ states of mind. Here’s my translation of the best bit:

But before the car can go completely under, the young Grambower [Grambow is a town] escapes the vehicle. Because his escape on foot proceeds exactly where the ice becomes even thinner, he breaks through into icy water a few meters from solid ground. His strength quickly fades; he will not survive for long in the icy water.

The police, who already fear the worst, hasten from the southern shore to the northern one. At first silence reigns. But then the officers hear a light splash. They extend to the victim a wooden board, can finally pull him on shore…

Whew, that tension’s so thick it could sustain the heft of a Nissan Sunny!