Human Guinea Pig

Where There’s E-Smoke …

Should I be ostracized for smoking electronic cigarettes?

Barack Obama is under a lot of stress, which must be testing his oft-repeated vow to quit smoking. But no one wants to think of the president of the United States sneaking away from his desk, furtively taking a drag in the Rose Garden, and flicking his butts into Michelle’s vegetable patch.

One day, I saw at a mall kiosk the perfect solution for satisfying Obama’s cravings while allowing him to remain at work in the Oval Office: the electronic cigarette. It was clear that my patriotic duty as the Human Guinea Pig was to test this device as a proxy for the president. I would try smoking electronically in places that banned the real thing, which meant nearly every place in Washington, D.C., and my neighboring home county, since both have some of the most restrictive smoking laws in the country.

As I approached the Smoking Everywhere kiosk at Westfield Montgomery mall, the young woman selling e-cigarettes took a deep inhale of one and let out what looked like a cloud of smoke. She was “vaping,” the new verb for inhaling the vapor generated by the e-cigarette. People around the world have been vaping since only 2004, when the first e-cig from China’s Ruyan Group hit the market. There are now more than a dozen imitators. The e-cigarette contains no tobacco and produces no smoke. Instead, it is an ingenious electronic device that at very fleeting glance looks like the real thing. The “filter” is a receptacle for nicotine suspended in propylene glycol—the main ingredient in deodorant sticks and artificial smoke machines. This is screwed onto the body of the “cigarette,” which is actually a battery and a heating element. When the user sucks on the filter, a nicotine-laced vapor is produced, satisfying a smoker’s cravings. A little orange light at the end of the e-cig that illuminates with each inhale adds to the verisimilitude. It is not completely convincing, however. There is no ash or smoke curling from the tip, it never burns down, and it is awkwardly heavy.

The saleswoman handed me a tester. I puffed, and it filled my mouth with a mist that tasted so revolting that three sticks of gum couldn’t eradicate it. An electronic-cigarette kit that came with two cigarettes, a charger, and five filter replacements (each was the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes) would cost me $129, she said. But I felt like a hedge-fund sharpie when I negotiated a discount on this toxic asset to only $100. (Like others who have been deluded about their financial acumen, I was fleeced: When I got home, I saw I could have ordered the Smoking Everywhere kit on Amazon for $68.)

The instruction manual had an epigrammatic Confucian (and confusing) air: “The birth of ‘electronic cigarette’ is a revolution of mankind’s smoking history. Undoubtedly, its birth will bring a gospel to mankind, especially th[e] vast smokers and will have extremely far-reaching impact on human being’s lifestyle.” I was less concerned about my lifestyle than my life. I had asked the saleswoman how safe the e-cig was, and she assured me that in the five years since it’s been introduced, “no one’s gotten hurt.” She also told me the e-cigarette had FDA approval.

Smoking Everywhere allows you to choose filter cartridges with different levels of nicotine. I selected “none,” which meant my e-cig was the buzz-free equivalent of nonalcoholic beer. The cigarette came in flavors such as tobacco, vanilla, mint, and apple. I took the saleswoman’s advice that apple was refreshing. If you enjoy spraying Febreze Apple Spice & Delight air freshener in your mouth, this is indeed the flavor for you. Fortunately, as bad as the mist tasted, there was no noticeable odor, and it dissipated almost immediately, and thus didn’t create a secondhand vapor problem.

The electronic cigarette is the latest in a line of devices that are supposed to satisfy smokers’ cravings while not enveloping bystanders in noxious fumes. The most famous is probably Premier, the smokeless cigarette that R.J. Reynolds thought was going to revolutionize the industry in the 1980s. Barbarians at the Gatetells the story of how Premier became one of American business’s biggest marketing fiascos. Among its problems were that it tasted “like shit” and “smelled like a fart.” There have been a few attempts since, but neither Reynolds’ Eclipse nor Philip Morris’ Accord has caught on.

I admit I was not the ideal candidate to test the e-cigarette’s effectiveness as a smoking substitute, since I’ve never smoked. OK, I may have surreptitiously had half a dozen pilfered cigarettes in junior high with my friend Merrill. I probably would have become a smoker if it hadn’t been for my mother’s influence. My mother said cigarettes were her best friend, and she smoked a pack or two of her pals every day for more than more than 50 years, until lung disease forced her to quit. Growing up, it was impossible to imagine her without one in her hand making her moods—anxious, furious, charming—manifest. My rebellion was to not be a smoker like her.

In his paean to smoking, Cigarettes Are Sublime, literary critic Richard Klein writes that the cigarette is “endowed with magical properties and seductive charms, surrounded by taboos and an air of danger.” Journalist Richard Kluger in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the tobacco industry, Ashes to Ashes, writes of the bewitching power of smoking, “[T]he cigarette is a uniquely intimate possession. … [S]moking is essentially a physical and highly sensual experience … the quintessence of cool … the lazy, sinuous ribbon wafting upward, signaling that the smoker exists.” My e-cigarette gave me an inkling of all this, even if the e-cig is decidedly not sublime, and I was signaling only that propylene glycol exists.

I remember when people smoked in hospital waiting rooms, when airplanes had smoking sections, when the arts and crafts project of choice at summer camp was an ashtray for one’s parents. But that was 40 years ago. I was apprehensive about testing whether the e-cig would really allow me to smoke everywhere. As Klein points out, “[T]he discursive performance of smoking has become a form of obscenity.” I decided to make my debut performance on Washington’s subway system, the Metro. Metro has a zero tolerance approach to the oral fixations of its riders. No eating, drinking, or smoking is allowed—passengers have been arrested for consuming a single French fry or finishing off a candy bar.

Nervously, I stood in the middle of the subway car, pulled my e-cig out of my purse, took a drag and exhaled. Immediately four older women across from me began murmuring to each other and looking at me disapprovingly. After about a minute, one couldn’t stand it anymore. “Are you smoking?” she called to me, making it clear this was a rhetorical question.

I’m sure among the 45 million American adults who smoke there are many who are polite, even abashed about it. But a cigarette (even if it’s a fake) has a magic-wand-like power to induce a sense of arrogant insolence in the user. I wanted to vape in her face and say, “What’s it to you?” Instead, I smiled and took my e-cig and pretended to put it out on the back of my hand. The ladies immediately went from outrage to fascination. Where did I get it? What is it for?

Next, I tried lighting up in the express line at the grocery store. I thought it was incongruous to have a basket containing arugula and bananas while I smoked, but then I remembered that the president himself is an arugula-loving smoker. As I puffed, the man in front of me turned and stared until finally asking, “Is that a fake cigarette?”

“Why do you say that?” I replied.

“Because it’s not real,” he responded.

By this time the checker chimed in, “I know where you got that. I saw that at the mall!” and she burst out laughing. Soon everyone in line was laughing at my vaping, which did not exactly give me the feeling of being the quintessence of cool.

One Saturday night my husband and I went out to dinner with friends, and I pulled out my e-cig as we sat at a long banquette. The three of them tried to pretend they didn’t know me, but the reaction from the rest of the patrons made me feel like a world-class transgressor. As I took drag after drag, everyone on either side of me stopped their conversation, looked at me in astonishment, then whispered to each other and pointed. It was as if I’d taken out a length of rubber hose, tied it around my arm, and inserted a hypodermic of heroin. Finally the woman at the next table asked the inevitable, “Are you smoking?” I explained it was an e-cigarette. She became excited and said, “I have to get one of these!” I asked if she was a smoker. She wasn’t but she explained, “I love it. It’s so cool!” Then the waiter came over for our order, saw me, and said, “Sorry. You can’t. It’s not allowed. You. Oh. Oh, I see. It’s a—cool.” Finally, I had achieved some quintessence.

My experiments were taking a toll, however. I had to dose myself not only with breath mints but painkillers as well. I worried that my fake cigarette might contain a brew of the greatest hits of Chinese contaminates: antifreeze, melamine, puffer-fish toxin (or even MSG!), because each time I took a puff a sharp pain ran across the top of my skull. (This eventually became a Pavlovian response, and all I’d have to do was pull the e-cig out of my purse and my head would start throbbing.)

When my family came for a visit, I served them brunch while blowing my e-cig. Their shock made my headaches worthwhile. My sister, a former smoker, quickly realized I was faking. Still, she observed me closely, finally saying, “If you’d been a smoker, it would have developed another side of your personality. The nasty barfly side.”

E-cigarette manufacturers like to give the impression that health-monitoring agencies have approved their product. This is not the case. Dr. Jack Henningfield, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and a consultant to the World Health Organization on tobacco policy, says WHO calls them an “electronic nicotine delivery system,” or ENDS, and unless the manufacturers can prove that their products are safe and effective, WHO is going to want to see an end to ENDS. He says, “It stuns me people would so willingly accept the word of manufacturers from an unregulated industry, claiming their product is safe and pure when they won’t tell us what’s in it and haven’t done the most basic studies.”

Dr. Saul Shiffman, an expert on nicotine addiction at the University of Pittsburgh, says the manufacturers are pushing their products as both a way to quit smoking and a way to keep smoking, which is problematic. He echoes Henningfield’s safety concerns, “How do you know what chemicals are being dissolved and conveyed? Or that they’re not full of bacteria that [are] setting up residence in your lungs? When you buy this, you’re becoming the guinea pig.” Exactly! (I was somewhat relieved to see the Ruyan Group paid for a New Zealand researcher to test its product, and he found it to be safe.)

Despite my saleswoman’s assurances, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved e-cigarettes and considers them a drug-delivery system. Says an FDA spokeswoman, Rita Chappelle, “As such, it’s illegal to sell or market them.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has called for the agency to pull the e-cigs off the market, a request endorsed by, among others, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association. I called Smoking Everywhere to ask about its legal situation, but no one ever got back to me.

Considering the various downsides—bad breath, headaches, the FDA says they’re illegal—perhaps the e-cigarette is not the answer to our president’s surreptitious vice. So, Mr. Obama, when you’re at your desk and you get that insatiable craving, do all of us a favor, stay where you are and pop a piece of nicotine gum.