Ben Stein's Diary

Up From Nicotine

Why the stigma against e-cigarettes?

By 3.17.14

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Friday
Up early to appear on Fox News with the old gang from Cavuto on Business. It is a smart, lively group, and I love doing it enough to get up at 6:30 to get to the studio in West L.A. on time. That’s saying something.

Last week was a time of intense travel. First to Orlando to, then to Greenville to visit our son and his beautiful family in that beautiful, leafy town. I really can hardly tell you how much I love Greenville. The people are the main asset. Friendly, good looking, outgoing, helpful.

The food is also amazingly delicious. Up country South Carolina cooking. Just one tasty meal after another at the Poinsett Club, which has become just about my favorite spot on the planet. Rich, gleaming floors, helpful and kind staff, delicious food of every variety. It is sort of what a club is meant to be and I feel extremely blessed that they let me in. Then of course there is the Waffle House.

Then a hasty trip to Miami to speak to a small group of men and women in finance. Again, a delightful group of very well-dressed men and women, none of whom had tattoos. I learned from my table mate at dinner about the importance of the Latvian infantry in the Red Revolution. Their zeal, so my neighbor said, was of decisive importance in installing Lenin. They hated the Russian/German nobility so much they fought fanatically against the white, pro-Tsar forces and won many a battle for the Communists. I think Stalin repaid them with mass murders and deportations in Latvia.

On the plane flight back, I watched 12 Years A Slave. It was one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen. A devastating portrait of just how vicious and cruel slavery was. Overwhelming. It makes me so happy to see the racial progress that has been made since then — blacks and whites strolling cheerily together down the main street of Greenville, South Carolina.

And how the portrait of slaves has changed in the past 75 years! In 1939, we had Mammy, a happy, controlling slave at Tara, the real power at the plantation, in Gone With the Wind. In that classic, the slaves were generally happier than the masters. None was ever shown being mistreated in any way. Now, we all knew that was not true, but we shut our eyes. In 2013, came 12 Years a Slave and the brutality, sadism, contempt for the human being inherent in slavery were obvious and bitterly painful. Kudos to those who made the movie, although, again, I think an important point is how much things have improved lately.

However, the real shock of the trip came in Orlando. There, I had been engaged to moderate three panels and an interview on smoking, how to value a tobacco company, and what e-cigarettes mean to the nation’s health. My employer for this moderating — not a speech — was Lorillard, who make cigarettes but also are a big factor, maybe the biggest factor, in e-cigarettes. That was where something extraordinary came out.

We all know human beings love nicotine. Nicotine makes people feel calmer, more alert, less depressed, more focused, generally happier with their lives. This is true of soldiers, housewives, of everyone under stress, and of the 99% of the other one billion people who smoke.

The problem, as we all know, is that smoking cigarettes is bad for human health. The smoke from burning tobacco leaves brings tar and other ingredients into people’s bodies and this hurts them a lot. In fact, it kills about 400,000 a year just in the United States.

Smoking has gone way down since the risks of it became clear cut, but there are still roughly 40 million smokers in the U.S. Many of these will die from smoking. And, again, the smokers do it to get that nicotine, which is a potent drug.

But what if people could get that nicotine, and a way to use their hands through the day, and a distraction — and not take in any measurable amount of tar? Would that not be a fantastic public health benefit?

The fact is that there is such a way. It is called commonly “e-cigarettes.” That is a device that looks a lot like a cigarette, only it has no burning tobacco in it. Instead, a tiny heater heats up nicotine and transforms it into a vapor that the user can inhale and get the effect of the nicotine without the tar. The exhalation is just vapor, with no smoke and no second hand smoke effects.

Lorillard, along with some other firms, makes e-cigarettes. Many people, maybe in the millions, have apparently switched from smoking by burning leaves to inhaling nicotine without any smoke or tar.

On the amazingly smart panels I interviewed, one scientist after another explained that e-cigarettes pose no meaningful tar health risk and would, if on a large scale substituted for inhaling burning tobacco leaves, save hundreds of thousands of lives in the USA alone.

The CEO of Lorillard, a smart, personable man named Mr. Kessler, explained it well. As I thought about what I had heard from these panels, it came to me that if half of the smokers in the USA switched to e-cigs, we would eventually cut the premature death toll from tobacco-related deaths by as much as two million over the course of a decade.

This part is astonishing enough. But the most astonishing part is that nevertheless, anti-smoking people, no doubt well motivated, are trying to curtail the use of e-cigarettes, regulate them, ban their use in public places. The anti e-cigs people say that e-cigs will start young people to eventually begin smoking tobacco leaves, but they apparently have no data on that. In the meantime, there is data that most of the e-cigarette users are former or concurrent smokers. So there is already evidence that a public (and private) health benefit is being obtained.

So, here is what I wonder: Why fight a product that is demonstrably incomparably less harmful than smoking cigarettes — and is being substituted for cigarettes by at least some smokers?

Maybe I am missing something, but e-cigs seem to me an almost heaven-sent gift to public health: a simulacrum of smoking, the pleasure of nicotine — and, or almost no, tar. Why are we not happy about this? Why are city governments fighting these? What am I missing? A gigantic public health benefit is coming our way. Why are we shouting, “Stop!”?

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.