Ethics & E-Cigarettes
While the patent for an e-cigarette like device dates back to 1965, it is only fairly recently that e-cigarettes (e-cigs) have become popular and readily available. Thanks, in part, to the devastating health impact of traditional cigarettes, there is considerable concern about the e-cig.
A typical e-cig works by electronically heating a cartridge containing nicotine, flavoring and propylene glycol to release a vapor. This vapor is inhaled by the user, delivering the nicotine (and flavor). From the standpoint of ethics, the main concern is whether or not the e-cigs are harmful to the user.
At this point, the health threat, if any, of e-cigs is largely unknown—primarily because of the lack of adequate studies of the product.
While propylene glycol is regarded as safe by the FDA (it is used in soft drinks, shampoos and other products that are consumed or applied to the body), it is not known what effect the substance has if it is heated and inhaled. It might be harmless or it might not. Nicotine, which is regarded as being addictive, might also be harmful. There are also concerns about the “other stuff” in the cartridge that are heated into vapor—there is some indication that the vapors contain carcinogens. However, e-cigs are largely an unknown—aside from the general notion that inhaling particles generated from burning something is often not a great idea.
From a moral standpoint, there is the obvious concern that people are being exposed to a product whose health impact is not yet known. As of this writing, regulation of e-cigs seems to be rather limited and is often inconsistently enforced. Given that the e-cig is largely an unknown, it certainly seems reasonable to determine their potential impact on the consumer so as to provide a rational basis for regulation (which might be to have no regulation).
One stock argument in favor of e-cigs can be cast in utilitarian grounds. While the health impact of e-cigs is unknown, it seems reasonable to accept (at least initially) that they are probably not as bad for people as traditional cigarettes. If people elect to use e-cigs rather than traditional tobacco products, then they will be harmed less than if they used the tobacco products. This reduced harm would thus make e-cigs morally preferable to traditional tobacco products. Naturally, if e-cigs turn out to be worse than traditional tobacco products (which seems somewhat unlikely), then things would be rather different.
There is also the moral (and health) concern that people who would not use tobacco products would use e-cigs on the grounds that they are safer than the tobacco products. If the e-cigs are still harmful, then this would be of moral concern since people would be harmed who otherwise would not be harmed.
One obvious point of consideration is my view that people have a moral right to self-abuse. This is based on Mill’s arguments regarding liberty—others have no moral right to compel a person to do or not do something merely because doing so would be better, healthier or wiser for a person. The right to compel does covers cases in which a person is harming others—so, while I do hold that I have no right to compel people to not smoke, I do have the right to compel people to not expose me to smoke. As such, I can rightfully forbid people from smoking in my house, but not from smoking in their own.
Given the right of self-abuse, people would thus have every right to use e-cigs, provided that they are not harming others (so, for example, I can rightfully forbid people from using them in my house)—even if the e-cigs are very harmful.
However, I also hold to the importance of informed self-abuse: the person has to be able to determine (if she wants to) whether or not the activity is harmful in order in order for the self-abuse to be morally acceptable. That is, the person needs to be able to determine whether she is, in fact, engaging in self-abuse or not. If the person is unable to acquire the needed information, then this makes the matter a bit more morally complicated.
If the person is being intentionally deceived, then the deceiver is clearly subject to moral blame—especially if the person would not engage in the activity if she was not so deceived. For example, selling people a product that causes health problems and intentionally concealing this fact would be immoral. Or, to use another example, giving people brownies containing marijuana and not telling them would be immoral.
If there is no information available, then the ethics of the situation become rather more debatable. On the one hand, if I know that the effect of a product is unknown and I elect to use it, then it would seem that my decision puts most (if not all) of the moral blame on me, should the product prove to be harmful. This would be, it might be argued, like eating some mushroom found in the woods: if you don’t know what it will do, yet you eat it anyway and it hurts you, shame on you.
On the other hand, it seems reasonable to expect people who sell products intended for consumption be compelled to determine whether these products will be harmful or not. To use another analogy, if I have dinner at someone’s house, I have the moral expectation that they will not throw some unknown mushrooms from the woods onto the pizza they are making for dinner. Likewise, if a company sells e-cigs, the customers have a legitimate moral expectation that the product will not hurt them. Being permitted to sell products whose effect is not known is morally dubious at best. But, it should be said, that people who use such a product do bear some of the moral responsibility—they have an obligation to consider that a product that has not been tested could be harmful before using it. To use an analogy, if I buy a pizza and I know that I have no idea what the mushrooms on it will do to me, then if it kills me some of the blame rests on me—I should know better. But, the person who sells pizza also has an obligation to know what is going on that pizza-they should not sell death pizza.
The same applies to e-cigs: they should not be sold until their effects are at least reasonably determined. But, if people insist on using them without having any real idea whether they are safe or not, they are choosing poorly and deserve some of the moral blame.