Readers Write: The ongoing debate over e-cigarettes

Letters to the Editor for the May 12, 2014 weekly magazine:

Some studies have shown that electronic cigarettes deliver 'little if any' nicotine to the bloodstream and that nicotine, absent tobacco, is a relatively weak drug, similar to caffeine.

With e-cigarettes, high-profile cigarette use is back on TV. What does that say about their acceptability, especially when the world is still debating whether they are safe?

The ongoing debate over e-cigarettes

Based on my research, I’d like to make two points that are relevant to Jonathan Zimmerman’s March 31 commentary, “Are e-cigarettes ensnaring a new generation of smokers?” First, some laboratory testing has found that electronic cigarettes deliver “little if any” nicotine to the bloodstream. And test subjects who vaped, or used, e-cigarettes containing no nicotine still reported relaxation and relief from “cravings,” making them a great placebo. Second, some research shows nicotine, absent tobacco, to be a relatively weak drug, with similar risks/benefits to those of caffeine.

Sylvia Kronstadt

Salt Lake City

When young people see their favorite TV characters using a particular item, it normalizes that item for them. Indeed, it’s because of this that broadcasters largely refrain from using images of people smoking on TV. Following the antismoking campaigns and the 1971 ban on cigarette commercials, broadcasters got the message that depicting this behavior was not in the public’s best interest.

Now, for the first time in decades, high-profile cigarette use is back on TV. People who routinely scrutinize incidental tobacco use appear to feel very comfortable with the depiction of e-cigarettes in their programming. What does that say about the acceptability of e-cigarettes, especially when the world is still debating whether these products are safe? Furthermore, if it looks like a cigarette and puffs like a cigarette, viewers may likely interpret it as a regular cigarette – not an e-cigarette.

Consider the use of an e-cig by Jenna Elfman’s character in the première of NBC’s new family comedy “Growing Up Fisher.” Allowing the mother character to experiment with an e-cig in front of her children, even for comic effect, potentially returns broadcasters to the days when the Flintstones smoked cigarettes in product placement vignettes.

Lawmakers know there is little they can do to stop in-program depictions of e-cigarettes, which are protected by the First Amendment. It is broadcasters who will decide whether e-cigs will become a normalized part of American popular culture. Let’s hope they keep them out of our living rooms.

Michael M. Epstein

Professor of law, Southwestern Law School

Supervising editor, Journal of International Media and Entertainment Law

 Los Angeles

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