Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘drugs’

Political doping

Who would have imagined that elections could be swayed by political-performance-enhancing drugs?

Trump, in full “unshackled” mode, told a crowd of supporters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that Clinton, who has won both presidential debates according to most polls, seemed “pumped up” at the beginning of the second debate last Sunday, but that he thought her energy then waned as the debate went on. So, in Donald Trump’s reality, it of course stands to reason that she was thus “pumped up” on some kind of performance-enhancing drugs, and they should both take drug tests before the third debate.

I dispute the claim that this is fully unshackled. If Trump were fully unshackled, he would demand that Clinton be subjected to a medical gender test, like South African runner Caster Semenya. After all, as Trump has so eloquently put it in the past

Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.

(“Frankly” is great. He’s giving us the straight dope now, as opposed to the politically correct pabulum that he is otherwise forced to espouse.) She should have to prove, then, that she’s not a man. It clearly wouldn’t be fair to allow Hillary Clinton to run for president as a woman, with all the advantages that women are known to enjoy in presidential campaigns, while actually benefitting from a higher testosterone level than her male opponent.

Imagine if it didn’t come out until after the election that Hillary was doping. What would we do then? Would her victory be annulled? Would she be banned from political competition for four years? If her testosterone levels are too high, would she be forced to take suppressing hormones? Would she be required campaign as a man? Perhaps she’d have to sexually assault a campaign worker, to even things out? The mind boggles.

Risk categories and e-cigarettes

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.


I was somewhat nonplussed by this article in Slate by journalist John Ore, who gives up drinking alcohol every January and had the dubious inventiveness to coin the name “Drynuary” which, he says, has caught on in some circles. What I found odd was that he seems to be plagued by demands to explain or hide the fact that he’s not drinking alcohol.

Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I’m not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction is usually an eye-rolling “Again?!” as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them.[…]

My wife, and other pregnant friends, have used certain sleight-of-hand tricks early in a pregnancy before they were ready to reveal that they were expecting. She would order the same drink as I would—say, a glass of red wine with dinner—and wait until mine was almost drained. Subtly, we’d switch glasses when no one was looking, and viola! It looked like she was pounding hers, and I was playing catch up.

It seemed odd to me personally because I rarely drink alcohol — and in Oxford that means frequently turning over my wine glass at dinners and drinking orange juice at social events with students — but I can’t recall that anyone has ever asked me why. Maybe it’s a difference between Britain and the US — more universal alcohol consumption here, but less eagerness to intrude on other people’s privacy — but I never had those questions when I lived in the US either. (Once I recall someone expressing surprise that I did drink something alcoholic, but without asking for an explanation. Perhaps I was just not sufficiently sensitive to the implications.)

I recently came upon this plot of alcohol consumption in the US. About 30% consume no alcohol, and the median is about one drink per week. So if Ore were hanging out with average Americans one would have to think that one in three of his companions would also not be drinking, and a second of three might very well pass on the opportunity as well. It wouldn’t seem worth commenting on. But obviously people don’t hang out with random samples of the population. And he specifically says that in his profession — presumably he means journalism — “business events and travel naturally involve expense accounts and the social lubricant of alcohol.” I’ll refrain from commenting on what this might explain about the state of journalism as a profession, but I’m pretty sure that in my profession alcohol definitely doesn’t get to be counted as a travel expense, and in some cases even the bottle of wine shared at a post-seminar dinner needs to be paid for separately because it’s specifically excluded. (more…)

The real question about “e-cigarettes”

I’ll preface this by saying, whoever thought to call inhalable nicotine delivery devices “e-cigarettes” probably deserves a marketing prize. More generally, the whole framing of these devices seems bizarre.

There’s an article by Sally Satel in The New Republic, under the title “Everyone Is Asking the Wrong Questions About E-Cigarettes”, which presents current opposition to the e-cigarrette phenomenon as a kind of neuropharmacological Luddism. The argument — which is depressingly common — is that electrically generated nicotine vapour is so clearly a health gain relative to tobacco smoke that no regulatory hurdles should inhibit an addict from replacing the latter by the former.

This sounds compelling, but it’s not, because it ignores fundamental principles of government regulation, and in particular the awkward respect that it shows to stasis: Very often we impose new regulations on changes, allowing the old to remain in place because the expense or disruption imposed by requiring the old to be replaced is seen as excessive. An example that first caught my attention many years ago was the way Boston (and presumably Boston is not at all unusual in this) imposed a requirement that, for example, new outdoor light fixtures or windows need to meet requirements of historic preservation — even (and this was the part that amazed me at first) if it’s just a matter of replacing one fixture by a new but identical fixture. But of course, the idea is that over time replacements will be made, and that will the appropriate time to upgrade to the desired (historically sensitive) appearance. (more…)

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