New Orleanians Weigh in on E-Cigarettes

New Orleans Locals Talk E-Cigs

I hit the streets of NOLA to chat about e-cigarettes.
Image by David Ohmer on Flickr

Vaping is rapidly growing in popularity here in New Orleans, which makes sense for a city that has the 24th highest smoking rate in the nation. But while many New Orleanians are turning to e-cigarettes to reduce or quit their smoking habit, others are still wary of this phenomenon.

There are many misconceptions about vaping, from claims that they contain antifreeze to claims that they are even worse than tobacco cigarettes. Controversy is bound to arise with a product that promises delivery of nicotine without the major drawbacks.

Cameron Christy, an instructor at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, said, “I dislike the idea of [e-cigarettes] and would never use them. I smoke cigarettes sometimes, and I like knowing that I am smoking a tobacco leaf and nothing else. I buy tobacco-only cigarettes. I guess I’m a purist in my bad habits. I have had a student light an e-cig in class to my complete shock.”

Catherine Spaulding, who works in the New Orleans Public Library system, said, tongue in cheek, “they look dumb — obviously the worst offense of all, right?” But she quickly got serious: “Smoke real cigarettes or quit. If you can’t quit cold turkey, slap on a patch and laugh at the pathetic huddled masses under awnings who aren’t as strong as you.”

Beneficial Alternative for Some

On the other hand, some New Orleanians consider electronic cigarettes a beneficial alternative. Isabelle Whitman, who doesn’t smoke or vape, is a graduate student in literature and a bartender on Bourbon Street. She prefers customers who use e-cigs instead of tobacco cigarettes: “There’s no cleaning disgusting cigarette butts that people have had in their mouths. They usually smell good, and that smell doesn’t stick to you like tobacco smoke.”

Mark Wayne, a New Orleans jazz musician and organizer, has found e-cigarettes to be a saving grace. “I consider myself a low-level activist for these things. As cigarette prices kept rising, I was angry. I felt like Big Tobacco had this control over me — tobacco buyers are specifically and aggressively targeted. So I switched to e-cigs and I love them.”

He stopped a two-pack-a-day habit, and the benefits were immediate and obvious. “My lungs cleared up. And my kids said ‘your voice sounds so much cleaner. I don’t hear you coughing anymore.’ ”

Smoking tobacco cigarettes is one of the most addicting habits in the world. It’s incredibly hard to quit, and Mark Wayne knows this from experience. “I lost my job and half my income and I went back to smoking tobacco. A stressful life has kept me on real cigarettes, though I also use my e-cigarette. It can still sometimes keep me off tobacco for a whole night.”

Liam Meilleur, a New Orleans native and an editor at the literary magazines Uncanny and Urban Fantasy, quit smoking altogether using e-cigarettes. He said, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters. Asthma and twenty years of smoking taught me that. So, what do I think of e-cigs? I no longer carry a rescue inhaler in my pocket, and I stopped filling my Advair prescription. I haven’t been to an emergency room for respiratory distress in over four years.”

Harm Mitigation

Anything that might mitigate the deadly consequences of tobacco smoking — responsible for more than 480,000 deaths in the U.S. annually — could be a major benefit to the public health of our city and the country. A 2006 study published in PubMed found that “Nonnicotine components [in tobacco cigarettes] provide many rewarding effects, often surpassing the direct effects of nicotine.”

This suggests that nicotine isn’t the only addictive component of a cigarette. The study’s authors found that the simple habit of holding a cigarette-like object and puffing on it could be an effective smoking cessation tool. This is a role e-cigarettes fill brilliantly: satisfying the nicotine craving, as well as the hand-to-mouth fixation and social element that many smokers enjoy. And while we don’t know whether e-cigarettes are 100% safe, the studies so far have shown that the vapor produced by e-cigarettes causes negligible harm to the user and bystanders.

Misinformation Sparks Alarmism

Despite the potential benefits, many New Orleanians have been quick to dismiss vaping. Meilleur said, “there’s so much misinformation and alarmist hand-wringing out there […] Almost every state has legislation under consideration that would ban e-cigs. These laws would force smokers to return to inhaling thousands of known carcinogenic and toxic chemicals — all in the name of protecting us from the possibility that e-cigs might not be 100% safe.”

New Orleans, a city balanced between great joy and great pain, is a little skeptical. However, many New Orleanians already feel their lives have been greatly improved, or saved, by e-cigarettes.