Afterthoughts: The Vapors

At an increasing number of businesses, there’s no smoking allowed. Even fake smoking.

illustration: Hanam mun

It’s tough being a smoker in Hawaii these days. Not only is it illegal to light up a cigarette in a bar, a restaurant or really any enclosed public space, in April, the city and county of Honolulu extended the smoking ban to some of Oahu’s most popular parks, including Kapiolani Park, Kuhio Beach Park and Sandy Beach Park.

The tug of war between antismoking crusaders and personal-freedom buffs is well-trodden territory. As someone who doesn’t smoke, I’ll just say I’ve really enjoyed the fact that my clothes no longer stink after a night out.

I have been surprised, though, at one side effect of the anti-smoking movement: the persecution of electronic cigarettes. The little devices, which are becoming more and more popular—U.S. e-cig sales doubled in 2012—mimic tobacco cigarettes by electrically heating liquid nicotine concentrate into an odorless vapor. For many people, they’re one of the most effective smoking replacements, as they come close to replicating the nicotine rush you get when a drag of smoke hits your lungs.

You’d think that antismoking advocates would be all for something that allows smokers to painlessly ditch the smelly, carcinogenic haze of tobacco smoke. But a growing number of local businesses and organizations are clamping down on e-cigarettes, lumping them in with the real thing. (Hawaii state law doesn’t address e-cigs, so these bans are being privately enacted.)

Last fall, for example, Kapiolani Community College established a campus-wide no-smoking policy, save for a few designated areas around the perimeter of the property. Included in the ban: e-cigarettes.

Salvatore Lanzilotti, special assistant to the chancellor, says KCC wanted to eliminate the peer pressure of smoking. “It’s an image problem,” he says. “You can’t tell from 50 yards away that it’s an e-cigarette. All you see is the puff of smoke. That invites you to think, hey, I can light up my cigarette.”

This seems to be the ultimate triumph of form over substance. It’s not enough that people are quitting smoking—they can’t even look like they’re smoking?

E-cigarettes are clearly healthier than regular smokes, and it seems obvious that antismoking advocates should be doing everything they can to encourage smokers to switch. Banishing e-cig users to the same old inconvenient smoking ghettos only removes an incentive to quit.

Lanzilotti says the school also had health concerns about second-hand e-cigarette vapor, although he admitted that the jury is still out when it comes to real-world data on ill effects.

Other local e-cig bans use this as their rationale, too. TheBus has kicked e-cigarettes off its buses, citing a statute in the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu that forbids passengers from “carrying or possessing any flammable, combustible, explosive, corrosive, or highly toxic liquid or other substance, article or material which is likely to cause harm to others or to emit any foul or noxious dust, mist, fume, gas, vapor or odor.”

Foul? Noxious? Really? I haven’t tried an e-cigarette myself, but my editor, Kam Napier, has a rechargeable e-cigarette, and frequently puffs on it in his office during meetings. Now, a business office is a pretty sterile, conservative environment. It’s the kind of place in which even the wafting smell of someone’s chicken katsu lunch can annoy nearby co-workers. (Sorry guys! I can’t say no to L&L!) And yet I’ve never once detected an odor from Kam’s e-cig. Even if trace amounts of nicotine were somehow left floating in the air, no one is catching a contact high from them. The vapor dissipates so quickly, you would have to literally blow it in someone’s face to even have a chance at sharing its effects.

As e-cigarettes become increasingly mainstream, it’s possible they’ll become more accepted in indoor situations. Right now, though, they’re still trying to shake off the stink of real cigarette smoke’s reputation.