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.