Ethics & E-Cigarettes

Electronic Cigarette Smoking

Electronic Cigarette Smoking (Photo credit: planetc1)

While the patent for an e-cigarette like device dates back to 1965, it is only fairly recently that e-cigarettes (e-cigs) have become popular and readily available. Thanks, in part, to the devastating health impact of traditional cigarettes, there is considerable concern about the e-cig.

A typical e-cig works by electronically heating a cartridge containing nicotine, flavoring and propylene glycol to release a vapor. This vapor is inhaled by the user, delivering the nicotine (and flavor). From the standpoint of ethics, the main concern is whether or not the e-cigs are harmful to the user.

At this point, the health threat, if any, of e-cigs is largely unknown—primarily because of the lack of adequate studies of the product.

While propylene glycol is regarded as safe by the FDA (it is used in soft drinks, shampoos and other products that are consumed or applied to the body), it is not known what effect the substance has if it is heated and inhaled. It might be harmless or it might not. Nicotine, which is regarded as being addictive, might also be harmful. There are also concerns about the “other stuff” in the cartridge that are heated into vapor—there is some indication that the vapors contain carcinogens.  However, e-cigs are largely an unknown—aside from the general notion that inhaling particles generated from burning something is often not a great idea.

From a moral standpoint, there is the obvious concern that people are being exposed to a product whose health impact is not yet known. As of this writing, regulation of e-cigs seems to be rather limited and is often inconsistently enforced. Given that the e-cig is largely an unknown, it certainly seems reasonable to determine their potential impact on the consumer so as to provide a rational basis for regulation (which might be to have no regulation).

One stock argument in favor of e-cigs can be cast in utilitarian grounds. While the health impact of e-cigs is unknown, it seems reasonable to accept (at least initially) that they are probably not as bad for people as traditional cigarettes. If people elect to use e-cigs rather than traditional tobacco products, then they will be harmed less than if they used the tobacco products. This reduced harm would thus make e-cigs morally preferable to traditional tobacco products. Naturally, if e-cigs turn out to be worse than traditional tobacco products (which seems somewhat unlikely), then things would be rather different.

There is also the moral (and health) concern that people who would not use tobacco products would use e-cigs on the grounds that they are safer than the tobacco products. If the e-cigs are still harmful, then this would be of moral concern since people would be harmed who otherwise would not be harmed.

One obvious point of consideration is my view that people have a moral right to self-abuse. This is based on Mill’s arguments regarding liberty—others have no moral right to compel a person to do or not do something merely because doing so would be better, healthier or wiser for a person. The right to compel does covers cases in which a person is harming others—so, while I do hold that I have no right to compel people to not smoke, I do have the right to compel people to not expose me to smoke. As such, I can rightfully forbid people from smoking in my house, but not from smoking in their own.

Given the right of self-abuse, people would thus have every right to use e-cigs, provided that they are not harming others (so, for example, I can rightfully forbid people from using them in my house)—even if the e-cigs are very harmful.

However, I also hold to the importance of informed self-abuse: the person has to be able to determine (if she wants to) whether or not the activity is harmful in order in order for the self-abuse to be morally acceptable. That is, the person needs to be able to determine whether she is, in fact, engaging in self-abuse or not. If the person is unable to acquire the needed information, then this makes the matter a bit more morally complicated.

If the person is being intentionally deceived, then the deceiver is clearly subject to moral blame—especially if the person would not engage in the activity if she was not so deceived. For example, selling people a product that causes health problems and intentionally concealing this fact would be immoral. Or, to use another example, giving people brownies containing marijuana and not telling them would be immoral.

If there is no information available, then the ethics of the situation become rather more debatable. On the one hand, if I know that the effect of a product is unknown and I elect to use it, then it would seem that my decision puts most (if not all) of the moral blame on me, should the product prove to be harmful. This would be, it might be argued, like eating some mushroom found in the woods: if you don’t know what it will do, yet you eat it anyway and it hurts you, shame on you.

On the other hand, it seems reasonable to expect people who sell products intended for consumption be compelled to determine whether these products will be harmful or not. To use another analogy, if I have dinner at someone’s house, I have the moral expectation that they will not throw some unknown mushrooms from the woods onto the pizza they are making for dinner. Likewise, if a company sells e-cigs, the customers have a legitimate moral expectation that the product will not hurt them. Being permitted to sell products whose effect is not known is morally dubious at best. But, it should be said, that people who use such a product do bear some of the moral responsibility—they have an obligation to consider that a product that has not been tested could be harmful before using it. To use an analogy, if I buy a pizza and I know that I have no idea what the mushrooms on it will do to me, then if it kills me some of the blame rests on me—I should know better. But, the person who sells pizza also has an obligation to know what is going on that pizza-they should not sell death pizza.

The same applies to e-cigs: they should not be sold until their effects are at least reasonably determined. But, if people insist on using them without having any real idea whether they are safe or not, they are choosing poorly and deserve some of the moral blame.

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  1. Regarding the concern that e-cigs will be used by those who wouldn’t use tobacco products otherwise:

    I am allergic to something in tobacco smoke – what specifically, I’m not sure – but I’m not allergic to nicotine itself. I learned this at a typical first-smoke age for a kid in the south surrounded by smokers and peer pressure – 12 years old – and ended up in the hospital as a result. So, since then, I haven’t tried any other tobacco related products.

    When a close friend of mine bought an e-cig a few years ago, I asked to take a puff or two to see what the big deal about nicotine was. I imagine that first try was similar to what most people feel when they first try cigarettes, minus the hacking, wheezing, vomiting, etc. It was interesting – there was a pleasurable, warm buzzing sensation throughout my body, and I felt slightly dizzy and ‘high,’ similar to a marijuana high.

    This effect lasted all of 20 seconds, and subsequent puffs did not provide the same effect. In fact, they provided none at all, not even days later when I tried it again. Further, while the ‘smoke’ wasn’t as harsh as I imagine tobacco smoke to be, it wasn’t exactly pleasant, even with the cherry(ish?) flavor added. Meh.

    I don’t know if this sort of effect or tolerance is typical or not, but if it is, I don’t think that there is much concern in hooking people on e-cigs who wouldn’t have used tobacco in the first place.

  2. Mike;

    If we have a right to self abuse, does that imply that we also have a right to harm ourselves? Is suicide moral or ethical? I am curious do not know the answer.

  3. What a self righteous piece of tripe, do some proper research in to your topic.in your first couple of paragraphs you show your ignorance by omitting a major ingredient of vegetable glycerine and talk of a “typical” ecigarettes using a cartridge. Once again an article that only states what the author wants without all the facts verging on propaganda, there have been numerous studies done showing the health benefits, and I am one of the many that can state that fact from personal experience. So who pays your wages pharma or big tobacco.

  4. Whether Mike’s facts are right or wrong (as alleged by Matt) I have no idea, but I certainly support his principle, based on J.S. Mill, in that I believe, with John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859), that each being should be free to do whatever he wishes in so far as this does not (significantly) impinge directly on the freedom or welfare of others, and this consideration should at all times be paramount.

    That means, of course (in answer to John M) that yes, we have a perfect right to self-abuse, self-harm and suicide, since these are private matters of no legitimate concern of anyone else.

  5. Oh and it’s 1963 they were invented by Hubert Green

  6. ‘they should not be sold until their effects are at least reasonably determined’

    I’m not clear on what you’re conclusion is – is it that the sale should actually be prohibited or ‘just’ that it is a moral wrong to sell them?

    As far as state interference goes, to me, it seems enough to ensure consumers know that the long-term effects of e-cig use and ‘vaping’ are unknown. They could be sold with labels to this effect similar to the ones cigarette pack carry and include leaflets the way medicines do that outline what is known/unknown, concerns some learned parties etc. The state could mandate all this and put certain restrictions on how and where they are sold (and to whom age-wise) without, to my mind, breaking the spirit of Millian liberty. The state might even go so far, I suppose, as insisting that they can’t be used in the same places that don’t allow the smoking of cigarettes.

    I don’t see why one would allow the sale of what we know is very, very bad for you – i.e. tobacco – on the basis that consumers know the harms, but deny folks the right to buy what they know is a relative ‘unknown’ health-wise as long they do know it is an unknown.

    There’s no evidence, as far as I know, that suggests non-smokers are taking up ‘vaping’ in significant numbers. (Certainly I’ve never knowingly encountered anybody using an e-cig who wasn’t a smoker or, more commonly, an ex-smoker.) But there is evidence that suggests e-cigs are succeeding in getting smokers off of what we know would otherwise kill half of them and that it has a higher success rate in this regard than other smoking-cessation methods. And nobody seriously thinks e-cigs will prove to have harms remotely comparable to those caused by ‘the real thing’.

    If ‘vapers’ are morally blameworthy it’s only because the state isn’t taxing the products or producers/retailers highly enough to cover the possible financial costs to society of e-cig use. It seems perfectly possible through means of taxation to remedy this – with a large measure of error – in favour of generating net financial gains to the state however the facts about e-cigs turn out. Indeed this seems exactly what the UK and US governments are of a mind to do.

  7. As some of the research and survey suggests that e-cigg is a better option than traditional tobacco cigarette, keeping these survey result in mind government should put some restriction on tobacco cigarette and make the e-cigg available to the people so that it can help to reduce the habit of smoking and also reduce health risk as survey suggests that person using electronic cigarette more likely to get rid of smoking habit.

  8. This is a little fluffy if you want me to agonize you all with drug reports, other Matt. I’m about being diligent and not pedantic. Cannabis is a horrible analogy (and I like dappers). It’s the objection is bad for society. Though eating the unexplored spices of psychoactive value are probably good for some conditions – cancer and depression. I have grown up in north DE AND Ashland, KY, my loved one’s and friends are all dying from things DOW and ASHLAND Oil refined when as many lifestyles are considered in retrospect. Since, I believe I read nicotine is carcinogenic, there is a woe, not a real horror – unless you’re being poisoned by the tasty liquid it comes in (Shout out to Ashley W and NYTIMES). LET’S JUST PRETEND WE LIVE IN ESCHWICH (if you like that analogy of a materialist slant – no offense the splintered mind).
    My America lives with epigenomic, toxicogenomic, and neuro-psychological epistemic values before it let’s in off chances. What science doesn’t have time for is semantics. We need people like us to sort out the fictive or rhetorical theory is not a very novel approach. I got links for most in evidence of fact, e-mail me. Samdog007@gmail.com

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