I like to quote H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” It often applies in the Capitol, with one of the latest anti-tobacco bills – five of which were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month – being an obvious example of what Baltimore’s favorite cynic was talking about.

Most attention has focused on the law raising the smoking age from 18 to 21. It may ramp up black markets and criminalize personal behavior, but at least the law has reasonable science behind it. Basically, people who start smoking in their teen years are far more likely to pick up a dangerous habit.

But the most significant new law – the one that evokes Mencken – deals with vaping. S.B. X2-5, by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, “recasts and broadens the definition of ‘tobacco product’ in current law to include electronic cigarettes.” It applies all the current tobacco-related rules and restrictions, including the new age 21 rule, to vaping products.

Leno says the new law closes a “loophole” that allowed e-cigarettes to be treated differently than tobacco. But there was no loophole. E-cigarettes heat a liquid and create vapor, not smoke. They are not tobacco. Many of the smoking solutions have nicotine in them, but others do not. Experts estimate vaping presents no more than 5 percent of the risk of smoking real cigarettes.

Why would the state classify a non-tobacco product as tobacco? It’s part of an ideological war on tobacco. There’s no reason to cut tobacco companies any slack, given the inherent dangers of the products they sell. But it’s disturbing when the state, succumbing to the influence of public-health activists, decides to embrace a crusade mentality that could cause serious harm to public health.

Study after study find vaping is a safer – note the word safer, not safe – alternative to smoking cigarettes. The United Kingdom’s well-respected Royal College of Physicians recently released a study that acknowledges what anti-smoking activists say: “Smoking is the biggest avoidable cause of death and disability, and social inequality in health, in the UK.” It notes quitting smoking is difficult for most people, who are addicted to nicotine. But it finds “in the interests of public health it is important to promote the use of e-cigarettes.”

Although anti-smoking activists may promote the use of nicotine patches and other such treatments to help people break their bad habit, e-cigarettes “appear to be more effective when used by smokers as an aid to quitting smoking,” according to the study. That’s because it’s more enjoyable to take a break and puff on an e-cigarette than to chew nicotine gum, wear a patch or use nasal spray. I think it’s the enjoyment factor that sets off these anti-vaping zealots.

State and federal officials counter that vaping may be a gateway to tobacco use. That sounds plausible, except it doesn’t appear to be true.

“There are concerns that e-cigarettes will increase tobacco smoking by renormalizing the act of smoking, acting as a gateway to smoking in young people,” reported the study. “To date, there is no evidence that any of these processes is occurring to any significant degree in the UK. Rather, the available evidence to date indicates that e-cigarettes are being used almost exclusively as safer alternatives to smoked tobacco, by confirmed smokers who are trying to reduce harm to themselves or others, or to quit smoking completely.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking an anti-vaping approach with its new regulations, which led my R Street Institute colleague Cameron Smith to conclude the agency apparently “wants more people to die of lung cancer.” Without vaping, more people will keep smoking a deadly product. Nothing is assuredly 100 percent safe. The question is about harm reduction. Vaping clearly reduces harm, but it does so in an enjoyable manner. The enjoyment factor probably explains why it’s so successful. What’s wrong with that?

I’ve experienced such nanny-ism when I sought information about the risks of puffing on a cigar every now and again. Most of the government information portrayed cigars as the equivalent of cigarettes, even though cigar smokers tend to smoke on occasion and rarely inhale. It’s easy to discount literature that has a “reefer madness” ring to it.

As with vaping, officials seem more interested in stopping something they don’t like than honestly evaluating the risks. It’s too bad, given the likely health benefits of this product. Maybe the best approach to satisfy the Puritans would be if people who use e-cigarettes stopped behaving as if they enjoyed them.

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