The Decision Tree

Decision-making from all perspectives

Why Do Liberals Hate Smokeless Cigarettes?

Liberals tend to oppose e-cigarettes, but the reason is unclear.

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you. But the bad part comes from inhaling burned plant structural material, and the addictive part is the nicotine. Unlike junk food, the bad part and the good part are totally different.

Maybe you could separate them? 

That's what e-cigarettes are. No, not cigarettes you can download on iTunes. But little cigarette-shaped and -sized canisters that provide you with vaporized nicotine solution. No burning plant material.

E-cigarettes are described in a recent John Tierney NYT article. The article highlights a study that used e-cigarettes to help smokers quit. "After six months, more than half the subjects in Dr. Polosa's experiment had cut their regular cigarette consumption by at least 50 percent. Nearly a quarter had stopped altogether."

That's pretty amazing, since cigarettes are notoriously hard to quit. According to some, they are more addictive than heroin, although it's kind of hard to measure these things. So what if we have a wonder drug that works better than nicotine patches, what's the problem?

The problem is the e-cigarette doesn't seem to be a gateway drug to quitting, it's a gateway drug to more e-cigarettes. The NYT article points out the counterintuitive aspect part of the whole scenario: "In the past, conservatives have leaned toward "abstinence only" policies for dealing with problems like teenage pregnancy and heroin addiction, while liberals have been open to "harm reduction" strategies like encouraging birth control and dispensing methadone."

Tierney, who I think is kind of a liberatarian type conservative, clearly delights in the conflicted situation of the liberals (i.e. people like me). He points out that nicotine is really really not that bad for you. The truth is: it has a lot of benefits. It improves concentration, focus, working memory, and learning. It also helps you lose weight! Malcolm Gladwell has argued that many smokers use cigarettes to medicate their own ADHD, and has noted that as smoking rates have declined, prescriptions for Ritalin for adults have risen. (Ritalin and nicotine are quite similar chemically). 

Tierney doesn't speculate on why liberals are so averse to e-cigarettes, and I don't know either. To me, it seems like it might be related to snobbery. After all cigarettes are associated with uneducated people, they are associated with poverty, and with people who lack self-control. A lot of people I know (all ivory tower folks) will morally judge someone who smokes (and I am just as guilty of anyone). For example: there's a lot more judgment for smoking cigarettes than for cigars.

 So is this just a case of leftist snobbery? Or is there some pragmatic reason why abstinence for nicotine is better than e-cigarettes?

 

 

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

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