In Lamont’s main reading room a student sits in an armchair and brings a small, cylindrical piece of plastic to his mouth. It looks like a cross between a cigarette and a pen, but the tip glows with a bluish LED light. He is smoking indoors. It’s an e-cigarette.
For years smoking inside has seemed like a relic of the past; scenes of people lighting up in hospitals, restaurants, airplanes, and public buildings appear in shows like “Mad Men” but not in real life. Smoking’s undeniable health problems have caused states to ban smoking in many public places, but recent months have brought about a resurgence of public smoking due to a new product: e-cigarettes. Tobacco-free, battery-operated devices that vaporize liquid nicotine for inhalation, e-cigarettes are becoming a trend nationwide—one that may make a dent in the traditional tobacco market and could return public spaces to the Mad Men smoking standard once more.
Though their emergence in the American smoking scene has been recent, non-tobacco cigarettes that served as a safe alternative to smoking were first patented in 1963, before people viewed tobacco as harmful. The idea was only commercialized 40 years later after the dangers of tobacco use were revealed; the Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik was the first to manufacture the product. E-cigarette technology hit the U.S. market in 2007.
In the last few years technological advancements have led to superior battery capacity for e-cigarettes, more effective nicotine delivery, and better flavors—all factors that contributed to the proliferation of e-cigarette technology. The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimates that about four million Americans now use battery powered cigarettes, and e-cigarette sales are projected to cross the $1 billion mark by the end of this year.
E-cigarettes are cheaper than a cigarette addiction. The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimates that a pack-a-day cigarette addiction costs over $1,000 a year, whereas e-cigarette replacement cartridges are estimated to add up to only around $600 a year.
Originally, e-cigarettes were thought to deliver nicotine ineffectively, but technologies have improved and recently liquid-nicotine cartridges have started to come in a range of strengths so consumers can determine exactly how much nicotine they will take in. Some cartridges do not contain any nicotine at all.
This past summer, a store devoted entirely to e-cigarettes called VapeNY opened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “They have almost every flavor you can possibly imagine,” says Archie I .H. Stonehill ’17 who has heard about VapeNY and plans to visit. “It’s like ice cream.”
A Way to Quit
E-cigarettes are often considered a favorable alternative to smoking that can help wean people off of conventional tobacco, but many in the Harvard community believe otherwise.
Dr. Vaughan W. Rees, deputy director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health, researches how tobacco products are designed to produce and promote addictiveness. Rees’s work has been following the e-cigarette trend, and his research suggests that e-cigarettes in their current form are not a viable alternative to cigarette smoking and are not widely effective in helping people quit smoking tobacco cigarettes.
“Compared to conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes have a lower potential for addiction,” Rees says. Although this may intuitively seem like a plus, Rees suggests quite the opposite.
“When we took conventional smokers and tried to get them to switch to an e-cigarette, none were able to switch completely. The reason is the e-cigarette just doesn’t deliver enough nicotine to a conventional smoker to be a viable replacement,” he says, noting that many smokers needed to keep smoking their conventional cigarette to avoid nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
But Rees still sees potential in the e-cigarette. If the FDA were to require a performance standard on e-cigarettes that made nicotine deliverance comparable to conventional products, Rees argues, then more cigarette smokers would be able to switch to e-cigarettes without any symptoms of withdrawal. The FDA has yet to regulate e-cigarettes, but has issued a notice of intention.
Stonehill began smoking e-cigarettes in addition to conventional tobacco products, as Rees says many smokers do, and the Stonehill believes that e-cigarettes “actually heightened [his smoking] addiction.” When he stopped smoking e-cigarettes he found himself craving a higher quantity of cigarettes.
Peter ’14, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because of what he perceives to be a negative stigma associated with smoking at Harvard, had a different experience. With the hopes of quitting conventional cigarettes, Peter tried e-cigarettes at the recommendation of a friend and has since transitioned from smoking a half a pack of cigarettes a day to solely using e-cigarettes.
“It’s the most harmless transition ever,” he says. “It’s really nice to still be smoking but feel like I’m making success towards quitting.” Peter plans to start purchasing lower and lower levels of nicotine for his e-cigarette until he is free from nicotine dependence entirely.
Christopher Bullen, an associate professor at the University of Auckland conducted an experiment from 2011 to 2013 to compare the effectiveness of e-cigarettes and traditional tools to quit smoking. In his limited sample size, 7.3 percent of participants given e-cigarettes were able to quit, as compared to 5.8 percent who were given a nicotine patch.
A Way to Start
Rees also acknowledges that e-cigarettes could have the potential to act as a “gateway” drug that would lead non-smokers to try e-cigarettes and then transition to using normal cigarettes. “Now that they see e-cigarettes are a low risk alternative, [people] might actually decide to use those products,” he says. “They run the risk of developing nicotine dependence which might lead to the use of more harmful tobacco products in the future.”
Advertisements for normal cigarettes have been restricted on television and radio, but e-cigarette advertisement is currently legal, which might help convince more people to try e-cigarettes.
Stonehill has observed non-smokers trying e-cigarettes at Harvard, and says that at his high school in London e-cigarettes did act as a gateway to smoking, especially for younger students who he says “didn’t quite have the nerve to actually start smoking yet.” He says that he definitely sees this as a dangerous aspect of e-cigarette use, as smoking e-cigarettes can lead to a nicotine addiction.
Peter did not see e-cigarettes as a gateway to smoking traditional cigarettes. “For non-smokers, e-cigarettes are comparable to something like hookah—I don’t see many people worrying about hookah as a gateway to smoking,” he says.
A Question of Policy
The fact that e-cigarettes release only water vapor and thus eliminate the problem of second-hand smoke begs the question of what the policies toward public e-cigarette smoking should be, both within and outside of Harvard.
Stonehill says that airplanes are the only places he knows of that explicitly ban e-cigarettes. The ability to smoke e-cigarettes in more locations is the primary reason he and his friends smoke them, he says. In his high school, he even smoked in class without his teacher minding. “It was actually hilarious, the teacher would turn around and I’d be blowing smoke rings. It was really enjoyable,” he says.
At Harvard, as the policy stands today, smoking cigarettes is prohibited within 25 feet of any university building, in Harvard Yard, or in the Quad. But students agree that many people do not honor these bans. John ’17, who was ganted anonmiy by The Crimson so that his parents would not learn of his smoking habits, explains, “Everybody smokes in the Yard, no matter what time of day it is. Securitas doesn’t care—they just walk right by you.”
E-cigarettes, which emit only water vapor, open up the possibility of smoking beyod just designated smoking areas on campus—even inside buildings. John says he and his friend both smoked e-cigarettes in Lamont without anyone giving them a problem. Stonehill says he knows some smokers who bought e-cigarettes in preparation for winter, when it will be preferable to smoke inside a dorm or club rather than going outside to smoke.
Chris J. Taylor ’12 is a former member of the now defunct Harvard Institute of Politics Tobacco Control Policy Group. The group researched tobacco related issues on campus and took responsibility for updating the “archaic” smoking policies that had been in place at Harvard, replacing them with the bans that exist today. “We thought it was a little bit odd that Harvard was the place where medical research was done to show that smoking was essentially bad for people, but Harvard was behind in banning smoking on campus,” he says. “We wanted to update the policies to be consistent with other schools.”
Taylor believes that e-cigarettes should be treated on campus in exactly the same way that regular cigarettes are. Even if e-cigarettes do not have the second-hand smoke problem, he still worries about their implications for bystanders, he says. Seeing people smoking, even they are smoking e-cigarettes rather than traditional cigarettes, might encourage others to try. “It still breeds the ground that says this is okay,” he says.
The Cool Factor
Many students observed that there is a stigma associated with smoking cigarettes at Harvard. Students at Harvard have openly told Stonehill that they judge him for smoking, which he says came as a surprise to him because “it’s unusual if you don’t smoke in the UK,” his home.
Humberto J. Juarez ’17, an occasional smoker, concurs that smoking is looked down upon at Harvard even though it is not a big deal in Mexico City, where he’s from.
It is yet to be determined whether the stigma that surrounds cigarette smoking will extend to e-cigarettes as well. Though the “de-normalization” of tobacco use has caused cigarettes to no longer be considered as cool as they were before they were deemed a health concern, e-cigarettes may be different. “E-cigarettes could have the potential to change all of that. They could be seen in a completely different way by a new generation of consumers,” says Rees.
Stonehill believes that people at Harvard are less judgmental towards e-cigarettes.
John believes that though e-cigarettes may be appealing to addicted smokers who want a healthier alternative, for social smokers like himself the indulgent nature of a cigarette cannot be replicated by an e-cigarette. “The reason you smoke a cigarette is because you’re really drunk, and it’s really bad for you,” he says. “If you take the bad part out of the indulgence, it’s not a temptation anymore.”
But as far as the glamour of smoking an e-cigarette compared to a regular cigarette, the jury’s still out. “Cigarettes are so ingrained in part of being a cool cultural icon. Even though people now know that it’s very dangerous and the majority of people don’t smoke, there’s still a sense of, ‘You’re such a bad kid because you smoke, you’re so cool,’” John says. “E-cigarettes, in the way that they’re healthier, kind of take away that sort of bad-boy characteristic of cigarettes.”