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Decoding the myth of the e-cigarette and our desire to escape.
Smoking is one of the most secretly superstitious acts in American culture, not just for those who partake but also for those who define them in negative relation to themselves. One is either a smoker or non-smoker. Few other habits are defined with such severity—for example, there are not cupcake eaters and non-cupcake eaters.
With cigarettes we expect that to smoke is to risk falling into an abyss of addiction where lungs slowly harden into black cinder before eventually drowning a person in his own blood.
The e-cigarette is the product of a decades-long search to find a non-toxic way of smoking—something that could still be consumed in the highly profitable, addictive and compulsive way cigarettes are but without the PR damage of Truth.org ads with people talking through holes in their throats.
The main problem with e-cigarettes is that they're much less effective at relieving the discomfort of our present conditions. They deliver the drug but not the high.
NJOY has made the furthest progress in the industry of vapor highs, selling nicotine delivery devices that spare the smoker from the effects of tar, additives, and, in New York, carpet glue. E-cigarettes can be sucked on everywhere from subways to high-rise elevators without the risk of exposing your neighbors to the horrors of secondhand smoke, making it theoretically possible to consume in an even more compulsive way: a human pacifier with the faintest narcotic effect. It's a device designed to enable addiction while allowing the user to circumvent the negative effects of being addicted.
A recent New York investigation reveals how NJOY's attempt to turn the e-cigarette into a mass-market phenomenon has been beset by complications. The health advantages in e-cigarettes have been able to pass as implicit so far, but making specific claims will inevitably invite FDA regulation. And while e-cigarettes may be decent weaning devices for the helpless addict, their worth as a replacement for cigarettes is dubious.
As Benjamin Wallace points out, the pleasures of smoking are many and ritualistic, including “the hand-to-mouth motion, the primordial pleasure of sucking on something, the organoleptic experiences of flavor and mouthfeel and ‘throat hit,’ the visual cue of exhaled smoke, the ritual of ignition, the embattled/defiant camaraderie of the smoke break.” As Wallace writes, e-cigarettes have failed to deliver on all but the nicotine hit.
The main problem with e-cigarettes is that, while they may spare us from cancer and stained teeth, they're much less effective at relieving the discomfort of our present conditions. They deliver the drug but not the high. They only seem desirable relative to the disruptive agitation of addiction, which we are always terrorized by, fuel for our masochistic fantasy that there is some kind of optimally healthy way to live if only we can eliminate toxins. Yet it is a mistake to think the pleasure of smoking a cigarette is any more delusory than the self-satisfaction of eating a kale salad while training for that half-marathon you are going to run next month.
One could view the desire to live healthily as even worse because it demands the acceptance of the present as good and worth prolonging. Smoking is a way of admitting that the present is a burden, a constant wet blanket that forces people into classrooms and cubicles where they're rated and ranked for their ability to be productive for some group of people they'll never see face to face.
In that way, the pleasure of filling one's lungs with smoke is a great comfort precisely because it's unhealthy, a whispered sacrament that reminds the long-suffering that one day they'll be released. A drag from an e-cigarette feels like it's saying the opposite—that you've got much more ahead of you than you think. In both cases you still end up picking your poison.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.