042414bp-offner-jim-column-mug

Jim Offner

I get it: Electronic cigarettes don’t belong in the hands of kids. I also understand they shouldn’t be marketed to minors. I also understand the power of marketing, and the temptation to target certain demographics is strong.

That aside, can we cancel – or at least put on hold -- the hysteria over this product? There are free-market principles potentially at stake here.

The battery-powered “nicotine delivery systems” are vilified on a number of fronts, as are their tobacco-stuffed “cousins.” But, to borrow from an old cigarette ad, there’s nothing “round and firm and fully packed” about the intriguingly misnamed "e-cigarettes." They’re not even cigarettes. They’re closer to a straw in the sense that they deliver nicotine to the mouth in much the same way a straw delivers fructose-rich soda pop.

Opponents often liken the devices to cigarettes because they “look like” the real thing. But, that’s not always the case. Some e-cigs are made of strong, thick, dark plastic that makes them look like fountain pens.

E-cigarettes do not emit smoke; the user inhales nicotine vapor -- hence the term “vaping."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed rules for e-cigarettes, including banning sales to minors and requiring health warning labels, as well as approving new products.

State legislatures, including Iowa’s, have beaten the feds to that punch amid widespread reports that middle schoolers had started vaping. Voila! Kids can’t legally buy the product now.

That said, perhaps we can stop hiding behind kids and get to the real problem here.

It’s about control. Tobacco is the newest four-letter word. And anything even with a tertiary connection to the Evil Leaf is guilty by non-association.

E-cigarettes are as close to tobacco products as are candy cigarettes. And, we all know what happened to candy cigarette sales.

Consider how The Associated Press seemed to make my point when it reported on Iowa clamping down on the vaping devices.

“Iowa will regulate so-called e-cigarettes as it does other tobacco products,” the wire service reported at the end of June in a roundup of new state laws that took effect July 1.

Note the use of the word other. It’s a subtle, hair-trigger equivocation of one product with another that seems designed to permanently link two distinct products.

Fortunately, the Legislature shot down a proposal that would have curbed marketing, promotion and sales of e-cigarettes because the product is "potentially harmful."

Here’s just a short list of other potentially harmful products that are easily available to minors:

Bicycles, baseball bats, marbles and “Family Guy” DVDs.

All of the above are available at the nearest department store. No ID required.

This isn’t about tween-age kids; it’s about controlling the buying habits of adults, and the entire business community should monitor this situation closely.

Nor is it about setting a legal age for purchasing a product; that has ample precedent. It’s about interfering with legal commerce. It’s about stigmatizing the purchase and use of these devices.

Critics pooh-pooh the lack of evidence of any health hazards to vaping, or “second-hand” exposure to the vapor, so they move on to speculation, including that it might “lead to” tobacco use. In so doing, they expose the arbitrariness of their rules. It’s eerily reminiscent of Iowa’s laughable smoking ban in all bars and restaurants -- except, of course, the revenue-churning state-run casinos.

This may seem a frivolous complaint, but it’s symptomatic of a larger malady that seems to be slowly strangling buyers and sellers of legal products.

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Business Editor at The Courier

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