Several items in the news recently have addressed the desire of government authorities and agencies to ban public smoking of e-cigarettes—or “vaping,” because no real burning or smoke is involved, just heating of nicotine-infused water—as a potential health risk. This view is gaining ground as a “precautionary” measure, even though no clear evidence showing the dangers of inhaling nicotine vapor has yet been produced. For these people, e-cigarettes are a gateway drug, a ploy by the evil tobacco industry, marketed to encourage full-fledged tobacco smoking. So the goal of a ban is to eliminate the smoking habit entirely from American society. On the other side, which admittedly the makers of e-cigarettes promote, are people who see the devices as aids to help people stop smoking—rather like a nicotine patch, but offering something familiar to do with your hands—and therefore an issue of “harm reduction” from the dangers of actually inhaling and spreading smoke.1
I’m not a smoker anymore. I started smoking a pipe when I went off to the university, which was a couple of years after the Surgeon General’s report on smoking in 1964, and continued smoking for a number of years after graduation. Out in the real world I realized I was smoking far too much each day, feeling generally ill and nauseous by evening time, growing dark stains on my teeth, and riddling my clothes with tiny ember holes. Smoking had become a lot of fuss, trouble, and expense for no very good effect; so I quit cold turkey. Actually, I quit several times, but the last one seemed to stick. I can say now, forty-odd years later, that I’m healthier and stronger for that decision.
So I don’t really “have a dog in this fight” over e-cigarettes. And I refuse to play the part of the reformed sinner, thumping his Bible and demanding that the familiar sin now be rooted out and punished. I remember taking up pipe smoking as a choice. It was partly a desire to express my newfound independence from parental guidance and suggestion, partly for the relaxation response of nicotine, and partly to cultivate the image of the tweedy scholar now fully engaged with English literature. I was well aware of the dangers. I never fooled myself that pipe smoking was less harmful than cigarettes, because I knew the incidence of lip, tongue, and throat cancer was higher. And yes, I was fully inhaling that rich, fragrant, tarry smoke. My tobacco consumption—when it finally leveled out—was about an ounce of Douwe Egberts Amphora blend a day, the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes.
My point is that, attractions of personal imagery and sense of independence aside, smoking was a choice for me. Only after the action had first satisfied my physical senses and psychological needs did the addictive properties of tobacco take control of my consumption. And when biology and psychology were sated, and the substance’s image fulfillment and sensory stimulation were no longer needed, I could break the addictive bond relatively easily.2
The assumptions of the social engineers, those who would ban e-cigarettes as a precautionary measure or permit them only as a harm-reduction measure, seem to miss this point. Neither side appears to understand that the market for these devices—or for any illicit pleasure—is driven by independent minds that make choices from an array of needs and desires. We smoke or vape because it makes us feel good, or celebrates our independence, or makes us seem sophisticated, or gives our hands something to do. We drink because we like the taste, or it relaxes us, or makes our troubles go away for a while. We drive fast motorcycles because we love speed, or can penetrate traffic jams, or prefer the open sky around our heads and knees. We are not idiots, because only someone who lived under a rock—or had never have tasted the pleasures of smoke, alcohol, or a fast bike in the first place—would fail to recognize the dangers inherent in these vices. Pleasure always comes with the risk of pain and loss. A mature person understands this.
Part of the human condition is to succumb to temptation, taste sin, make choices about it, and eventually through strength of will and purpose reject it. A person who has never been tempted and tried tobacco, alcohol, adrenalin, sex with strangers, or some other forbidden experience must remain as a kind of child, a pure spirit, who never had to exercise his or her own willpower to break the addictive bond. True, such a person will not be sadder in the long run, but neither can he or she become wiser. Being told about a danger and believing in it is not the same as experiencing the danger and learning to escape it. Trying, experimenting, failing, and recovering are part of the human pattern of development.
Social engineers seem to believe that human beings are a kind of simple stimulus-response mechanism. That we are social automata which will see, react to, and make life choices based on package warning labels and gruesome public service announcements about smoking. They need to believe that these measures are effective in the fight against tobacco. Conversely, they also need to believe that advertising by evil tobacco manufacturers effectively dupes otherwise intelligent people into lighting up the product in question. As if advertising were an infallible “on” switch to create demand, and government package labeling were an effective “off” switch to kill it.
Now, it’s clear that if advertising were not effective, companies wouldn’t spend so much time, money, and effort on it. But the return on any one ad or campaign is at best awareness and sometimes a flickering desire to try something new, if and when the choice is presented. But no amount of promotion can overcome a product that fails to deliver on its implied promise. Consider the Ford Edsel, New Coke, or Apple’s Newton personal digital assistant. If the value proposition is not there for the customer, the product dies.
Consumers tend to tuck the information gleaned from advertising and public service announcements alike into the back of their minds. Sometimes that information influences a conscious decision at the point of purchase. Sometimes it merely sets up a vague attraction or sense of repulsion. But the consumer is neither hypnotized into taking action nor coerced into rejecting it. The human brain, the mind, and the persona that inhabits them are a lot more complicated than the behaviorist’s stimulus-response model constructed out of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs.
So most government regulators and social engineers must live in a kind of fantasy world. They’ve learned from experience that they can control companies and their commercial actions. That if, for example, they make it illegal and actionable for a bank or a manufacturer to conduct business in a certain way, that mode of business will generally not take place. Regulation works in the world of prescribed law and enforcement with enterprises run by groups of responsible human beings who believe they are acting for the good of the corporation. Make it illegal for a bank to invest a depositor’s account money in the stock market, follow up with auditors and regulators, and the practice is effectively stopped. Require a car manufacturer to install airbags in all new vehicles, follow up with inspections and embargoes, and the devices will appear on schedule.
But personal choice and action are not the same as corporate activity. Make it illegal for a man or woman to consume alcohol, marijuana, or methamphetamines, or acquire a handgun, and the realm of human desires, needs, and choices takes over. People will have heard about the dangers inherent in all of these, as well as the foolishness of speeding on the freeway or practicing unprotected sex. But individual choice—including the evaluation of potential harm, the assumption of personal and social risk, and the acceptance of consequences—drives individual action. And indeed, every personal choice will eventually be met by a legal or illicit supplier, whether it’s alcohol during Prohibition, cocaine at the height of the War on Drugs, or handguns in jurisdictions with an absolute ban on ownership.
Still, the kind of person who goes into public service with the intention of improving people must believe that humans are simple behavioral mechanisms, that advertising creates irresistible subliminal impulses, that warning labels can suppress bad habits, that precautionary bans can effectively eliminate threats, and that permission is needed to promote harm reduction. Social engineers believe that human nature is malleable, a tabula rasa upon which they can write the kind of behavior that promotes good action, public health, safety, and fair cities. They have staked their livelihoods on the proposition that bad influences drive us to sin, and good influences will preserve us from temptation.
It’s fortunate for the social engineers that no one ever quantifies their results and takes the cost of failed programs out of their paychecks. Personally, I couldn’t live in a world that narrow and blinkered.
1. See “Smoke and fire over e-cigarettes” from Science magazine, January 23, 2015. (This is a summary; the full article is behind a firewall for subscribers.)
2. I did much the same thing with my addiction to alcohol a decade later.