E-Cigarette, Public Policy and Communication Science

Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS, aka "e-cigarettes") are one of the most fascinating public health innovations to be debuted in decades. They are fascinating not because of their technical attributes nor the phenomenal growth they have achieved as a consumer product nor even for their potential public health benefit in helping smokers quit smoking. E-cigarettes are fascinating because of the dilemma they pose for public (and private) health officials.

An e-cigarette consists of a small compartment filled with liquid containing nicotine, a tiny battery, and a similarly small electronic converter that vaporizes the liquid so that it can be inhaled. You can buy disposables, or an ENDS that can be refilled. They are less expensive to use than tobacco cigarettes, they don't make your clothes smell nor need emit any odor, they don't leave burn marks since nothing is lit. The nicotine is addictive but that's it; the carcinogens that come with burning tobacco and that cause lung cancer are absent. Vaping is unquestionably healthier than smoking.

What is a city public health official to do about e-cigarettes? They are already for sale at every grocery store and gas station and convenience store. They are appearing in new flavors and colors. They are beginning to appear in new forms, looking not like cigarettes but like pens or sticks of lip gloss. What they give you is a jolt, similar to the effect of using a Electronic Caffeine Delivery System (ECDS, more commonly known as a coffee maker). Should the use of e-cigarettes, including those that look like pens or chap stick, be prohibited in public parks? College campuses? Airport terminals (and indeed, in airplanes)? They emit no second-hand smoke. Are they different from nicotine gum or nicotine patches? 5-hour energy drinks?

The dilemma of public health officials is partly that e-cigarettes were initially made to look like and still largely mimic the feel and appearance of tobacco cigarettes. Visible vapor and glowing red tips were designed into e-cigarettes so that the innovation would appeal to those smokers who are emotionally tied to tobacco cigarettes and to the experience of smoking. But what happens when non-smokers take up vaping? Sizable proportions of American teenagers report having tried e-cigarettes. The last two decades show a long celebrated decline in smoking rates in the U.S. Could e-cigarettes become a gateway drug for an upswing in tobacco use? Is this the reason that the world's largest tobacco conglomerates have been buying up small e-cigarette manufacturers? Or are those corporations looking for a less demonized primary product that still holds the promise of an addicted population of users?

The history of communication science is inextricably tied to the fight against tobacco. The largest funder of research in communication is the U.S. National Cancer Institute. From a communication science perspective, the meanings that producers, marketers, consumers and public health officials make of e-cigarettes offer fascinating topics for study.

- Jim Dearing

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