The man behind the counter had a wide variety of plastic tubes spread out before him. "Vapor – not smoke," one of the packages said. Whoever distributes e-cigarettes in Canada has little interest in culturally appropriate spelling, apparently.
"Are these things bad for you?" I asked, although I was pretty sure that the vape-shop owner was not, in fact, a medical doctor. "Better than smoking," he said with a shrug.
He would say that, considering that he was trying to sell me the rechargeable e-cigarette package for $39.99. I went for the cheapo disposable option instead – $19.99, about the price of two packs of actual smokes. Confronted with a range of flavours, I opted for "Canadian tobacco" because it seemed slightly less ridiculous than inhaling "blue raspberry" vapour from a cigarette-shaped plastic tube.
It might be tobacco-flavoured, but there was no actual tobacco in my e-cigarette and nothing combustible, either. A tiny cartridge inside carries propylene glycol and indeterminate "flavourings," but no nicotine. (The sale of e-cigarettes is not banned in Canada, but they are not allowed to contain nicotine – although it's fairly easy to procure a nicotine cartridge and hack your cigarette.)
Hacking – the horrible coughing variety – is one of the reasons I gave up smoking years ago. Well, almost gave up. Like many former addicts, I indulge in the odd social cigarette, usually to accompany that other vice, the over-the-yardarm cocktail. But "social smoking" is a misnomer – all smoking is anti-social and dangerous, and I've been keen to find a way to butt these last few cigarettes out of my life.
And so here you have it: Confessions of a Middle-Aged Vaper. The health jury is still out on e-cigarettes. As my colleague André Picard wrote, "research on e-cigarettes – about their potential harms and potential benefits – is in its infancy. Data on long-term risks and benefits are especially lacking."
This ambiguity hasn't stopped widespread distaste for the faux cigarettes: They've been banned in public places in many cities in the United States and in France, even though they don't produced second-hand smoke – or, indeed, any smoke. "Safer does not mean safe," said Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director, at a meeting where vaping in public was banned. "… We don't want to risk e-cigarettes undermining a half-century of successful tobacco control."
The repugnance over e-cigarettes seems to have less to do with the harm they potentially do than the bad old associations they represent. There's a moral distaste for the nasty, vile habit that sent weak-willed social lepers out into their sidewalk exile. But the lepers are the very people who might benefit from the new technology.
A recent study from the University College of London showed that e-cigarettes can be hugely helpful to those trying to free themselves from tobacco addiction. "People attempting to quit smoking without professional help are approximately 60 per cent more likely to report succeeding if they use e-cigarettes than if they use willpower alone or over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies such as patches or gum," the study of almost 6,000 British smokers reported. And, last month, a letter to the World Health Organization signed by more than 50 health researchers argued against restricting e-cigarettes: "The 1.3 billion people who currently smoke could do much less harm to their health if they consumed nicotine in low-risk, non-combustible form."
Almost every story I've read about e-cigarettes has taken place in the realm of the abstract; there's no sense of what it's actually like for a smoker to try these things. Well, I'll tell you: It's more pleasant than smoking butts. I puffed my way along the sidewalk, drawing the usual disapproving stares, but at least my clothing didn't smell of anything worse than Toronto's streets. I didn't need a box of nuclear-strength breath mints before I went back to the office. I wasn't left with a dirty cigarette butt to drop. (Not that I would have anyway, horrors!) I did not pollute the air with my noxious second-hand smoke. Most important, I had no desire to go buy a pack of actual cigarettes.
Would it be better if I could quit my social smoking habit without the need of the ridiculous plastic tube? Absolutely. I should also be putting hemp hearts – whatever they are – in my cereal, and running 10 kilometres a day. Do I think e-cigarettes should be banned from sale to minors? Again, absolutely. But for the rest of us who are older but not necessarily wiser, they provide a slightly impish alternative to the demon weed.