Once again, I'm searching for middle ground - balance in an increasingly polarized world.
Early this summer, I wrote a series of blog posts for Isthmus' TheDailyPage.com on electronic cigarettes. They generated the most heated and lengthy debate of anything I've ever written, which took me by surprise.
Why on earth did these tobacco-free cigarette substitutes engender such passionate responses, pro and con?
Smoking, of course, has a long and contentious history in this country. From the days of tobacco execs lying about the health hazards of their products to our recent statewide smoking ban, cigarettes have generated an enormous amount of debate - and dollars.
Electronic cigarettes - devices that look like real smokes but contain no tobacco or tar, only nicotine and flavoring conveyed by a water-based vapor - are all the rage, due to smoking bans and people's desire to kick the habit.
Unfortunately, little research exists about the short- and long-term health effects of "vaping," and no federal regulations have been put in place to guarantee even basic levels of safety or responsibility.
"This is a drug-delivery device," says Sandy Bernier, program coordinator for Five Counties Tobacco-Free Living. "Dosage-wise, you don't know how people are really using this. And of course you're always worried that it's going to end up in the hands of the most vulnerable population - minors - and that it will then initiate nicotine use and graduate to regular cigarette use."
Bernier notes that distributors of e-cigarettes don't need any special vendor permits and don't face any penalties if, say, their website or mall kiosk fails to screen out minors. These checks, though imperfectly enforced, are in place for regular cigarettes.
Manufacturers of e-cigarettes, and the flavored "smoke juice" therein, argue that they are being as responsible as possible, even without regulators breathing down their necks. Heidi Braun, the chief operating officer of Johnson Creek Enterprises, a Wisconsin-based smoke juice manufacturer, responded to my blog posts by inviting me out to tour the facilities.
I ended up at the small company's plant, located halfway between Madison and Milwaukee. Braun and CEO Christian Berkey showed off the safeguards they have in place to prevent sales to minors. And they aggressively refuted the claim, pulled directly from the only major Food and Drug Administration study into the product, that the smoke juice contains antifreeze.
As it turns out, the smoke juice contains a food-grade anti-freezing agent called propylene glycol. It's an ingredient also found in things like Wendy's Frosty, and long approved for human consumption. Braun and Berkey see the antifreeze line, which anti-smoking activists bring up time and again, as a blatant distortion.
Berkey, who responded positively to a recent FDA letter warning of possible rule violations (he said Johnson Creek Enterprises is already complying and welcomes outside regulation), showed me some of the letters the firm has received. The correspondents credit the product with improving their health and family relations - themes also sounded in my exchanges with individual and corporate supporters.
For instance, Patricia "smoked for 30-plus years and tried everything from the patch to hypnosis to stop. I bought an e-cigarette 15 months ago and put down the smokes within the first week. It really did feel like nothing short of a miracle to me. Within a few weeks, I could breathe again. My senses of taste and smell returned. My cough vanished, and so on."
Others agreed e-cigarettes allowed them to break a bad habit after other attempts failed.
Even Maureen Busalacchi of Smoke Free Wisconsin says, "If electronic cigarettes have helped people quit, that's great, and I'm glad that it did." But, she adds, "I think it's dangerous to use something as a cessation product that hasn't been tested."
This appears to be the main concern of health and consumer protection organizations. There are no rules for these things and, even if there were, the FDA is severely backlogged, and its methodology is often flawed or biased.
Small companies like Johnson Creek Enterprises probably aren't who we should worry about; they're only a sliver of the market. Currently, many e-cigarettes are imported from countries like China, which tend to have lower safety standards.
But no real progress will be made until hard research is done and clear, reasonable regulations are implemented. Isn't that the lesson we were supposed to learn from Big Tobacco? Never to jump in and trust blindly?
Until both sides agree to pursue this middle ground, they will continue to clash. Anti-smoking advocates will push for a complete ban on e-cigarettes, while vapers and the industry cry foul at an overzealous crusade.
As for me, a lifelong nonsmoker, I must admit preferring to spend a long car ride with a vaper instead of a smoker. But I still have concerns, as I would with any untested product that delivered doses of a highly addictive drug. I must listen to that doubt, but also to people who say e-cigarettes have improved their lives.
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at TheDailyPage.com.