Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I’ve been reading Kate Fox’s celebrated Watching the English, which is sort of a pop-sociological treatise on English customs, but somewhat hard to take for all its flattering the English in all the myths they cherish about themselves — including their supposed modesty and inability to accept compliments. (I was particularly astonished by her description of the supposedly considerate English drivers. Perhaps they treat other drivers with more respect than they can spare for pedestrians.)

Anyway, since I am intrigued by the way “e-cigarettes” — devices for inhaling an addictive drug — have managed to float free from drug regulations, not to mention the prohibition that usually gets slapped onto designer drugs, as well as from their association with increasingly illicit tobacco. Fox is a huge fan, and can’t understand how anyone could object:

These clever devices are a sort of glorified version of nicotine inhalators, which look and feel rather more like a real cigarette, and emit a totally harmless, odourless steam or vapour that looks a bit like smoke. Many people are now accustomed to seeing these electronic cigarettes, and know that they are harmless…

Some people, however, do not instantly grasp this… and I have been conducting informal cross-cultural research on their reactions. In England, there are the usual raised eyebrows, frowns, pursed lips, tuts and mutters… But in all the years that I have been using these e-cigarettes on public transport and in restaurants, pubs and other public places where smoking is banned, only one English person has ever actually ‘confronted’ me about it…

In almost all countries, this disapproval quickly turns to friendly laughter, or curiosity, once I have explained that my ‘cigarette’ is an innocuous electronic device. The only exception I have found so far is the US, where some people seem to object almost as much to completely risk-free e-cigs as they do to the real thing — an irrational reaction that brings to mind my favourite definition of Puritanism: ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having fun.’

(Mencken’s definition was actually “that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.) There’s a fascinating number of words about risk here: odourless, harmless [twice], innocuous, completely risk-free, irrational reaction. It brings to my mind the ridicule heaped upon the killjoys who suggested in the 1980s and 1990s that something as innocuous as sidestream tobacco smoke could harm people’s health. Now everyone accepts that sidestream smoke is highly toxic, but the completely unregulated mixtures of chemicals spewed out by e-cigarettes are supposed to be harmless. On the basis of advertising copy, so far as I can see.

In contrast to the anthropologist Kate Fox, mere epidemiologists do not describe the second-hand exposure to e-cigarette vapour as “completely risk-free”. Instead, they say things like

Schober et al. measured indoor pollution from 3 people using e-cigarettes over a 2-hour period in a realistic environment modeled on a café. They found elevated nicotine, 1,2-propanediol, glycerin, aluminum, and 7 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons classified as probable carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in the room air.[…]

on average, bystanders would be exposed to nicotine but at levels 1/10th that of cigarette smoke (e-cigarette aerosol, 3.32±2.49 μg/m3; cigarette smoke, 31.60±6.91 μg/m3; P=0.008). Both e-cigarette aerosol and cigarette smoke contained fine particles …

So e-cigarette vapour contains known carcinogens and the addictive drug nicotine. It is known that persistent low-level exposure to nicotine can provoke nicotine dependence, particularly in adolescents, or predispose them to other drug addiction.

Some people choose to take that drug recreationally, and I don’t object to them having that right. But why would a scientist disparage other people’s unwillingness to accept these risks to support her habit as “an irrational reaction”?

Of course, I know why. It’s one of the standard clichés about scientists, that they use the pose of rationality to claim an authority that they have not earned, to pretend that their private caprices are facts. It is unprofessional, and it undermines the whole enterprise of science.

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