The New York City Council voted yesterday to ban the use of e-cigarettes in bars, offices and even outdoors in public parks. The Council approved the ban 43 to 8, and the new law will go into effect in four months.
I know first-hand about smoking, e-cigarettes, addiction and harm-reduction – on both a personal and professional level. I have struggled with a serious cigarette addiction for 20 years, have attempted to quit smoking numerous times in the past without success, and have finally succeeded in quitting thanks to e-cigarettes. I have also worked on drug policy issues for the last 14 years at the Drug Policy Alliance, advocating for pragmatic interventions to reduce the harms of both drug misuse and prohibitionist drug policies. For these reasons, I firmly believe that the City Council’s bill restricting e-cigarettes is a major blow to people who are trying to stop smoking and will end up accomplishing the opposite of advocates’ intended goals of improving people’s health and reducing smoking-related deaths.
I have a very complex and emotional relationship with cigarettes. On the one hand, cigarettes have been very good to me. I enjoyed smoking for many years. I loved having a cigarette when celebrating good times, and smoking was helpful to me when I was anxious or stressed. I enjoyed cigarettes both socially and when alone. Cigarettes were a friend and companion – always there for me, in good times and bad.
At the same time, my cigarette addiction has caused a great deal of shame and pain for me and for my loved ones. I had huge fights about my smoking with the people closest to me. I made promises to family and friends that I would quit more times than I can remember. I tried everything from the patch to Nicorette gum to Wellbutrin to hypnosis, and none were able to keep me from relapsing. I felt embarrassed and angry when I would start smoking again and see the disappointment on the faces of others.
Five months ago, I decided that I would give quitting another shot. For the first time in my years of smoking I was starting to feel the toll on my body and health. I was short of breath when exercising, would hear myself wheezing when I shouldn’t have been, and would often have heartburn. Then there was the 14 dollars a day that I was spending on my pack-a-day drug addiction. Besides preserving my own health, I wanted to quit smoking before it became an issue once again in another relationship.
So, five months ago I picked up the e-cigarette, and I haven’t smoked a cigarette since. While it isn’t quite as “good” as the real thing, I have found it incredibly helpful in getting me to stop smoking. I have been able to get my nicotine without having to inhale burning smoke into my lungs. I can still enjoy the pleasure of the smoking ritual – holding a familiar, cigarette-like object, making the “smoking” motion and breathing deeply – all without the smoke. I am able to attend to my urge and satisfy my cravings within the comfort of my office or apartment without having to head out to the winter cold or ostracize myself from friends and coworkers – and without the worry of exposing others to second-hand smoke. For the first time in my life, I have had a valuable tool and aid to help me quit smoking. And as a former pack-a-day smoker, my use of e-cigarettes these last five months means that 3,000 cigarettes did not go into my lungs.
Over the past month, I have followed the growing alarm and demonization of e-cigarettes. Anti-smoking advocates claim that e-cigarettes are glamorous and going to send the wrong message to society that “smoking” is ok. They warn (in the absence of any evidence) that young people and non-smokers will undoubtedly take up this new habit and that e-cigarettes will become a gate-way to real cigarettes. They say that bars and restaurants are confused by e-cigarettes and that it will be simpler to treat e-cigarettes like the real thing. They say that the science is not in yet, and we don’t know how safe e-cigarettes are.
And now The City Council and Mayor Bloomberg have succeeded in treating e-cigarettes like real cigarettes.
I find it ironic and disturbing that some of the most vocal opposition to e-cigarettes comes from health advocates. While everyone agrees that we don’t want young people to start smoking, and that it would not be good if larger numbers of non-smokers did end up trying e-cigs and moving on to real ones; and while there may even be some negative health consequences to e-cigarette use, it is disingenuous and outrageous that health officials are not embracing this undisputedly safer alternative to smoking. Whatever the risks and harms of increasing e-cigarette use, those are surely outweighed by the incredible health benefits for millions of people like me.
New York health commissioner Thomas Farley, anti-smoking groups and elected officials like the NYC Council have spent years trying to reduce premature deaths from smoking. They should know better than most that a tool which has already helped millions of people like me stop smoking cigarettes should be celebrated and embraced – not restricted and stigmatized.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).