Virtual Insanity

Something from the recent Throne Speech here in Nova Scotia struck me as quite odd. Specifically, a local news story quoted that the Premier “promised in the throne speech to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places.”

Nova Scotia would not be the first jurisdiction to take this step and it would join a long list of jurisdictions which have enacted such legislation or by-laws. I am not an advocate of e-cigarettes nor did I understand much about them prior to doing some research for this post, but my understanding of some of the logic behind this intended ban on e-cigarettes in public places is that they promote the use of real cigarettes…….. which are perfectly legal to use in outdoor public places!

So we have product X which is a perfectly legal product to use in public places despite the negative health effects associated with it. And here we have product Y which is new to the market with much conjecture as to whether it helps people stop using product X or if it might promote the use of product X. So what several jurisdictions have decided to do is ban the use of product Y because it might promote the use of the perfectly legal product X.

I have been trying to come up with a proper idiom for this type of thinking. “Closing the barn door after the horse gets out” is not quite right, nor is “putting the cart before the horse” (evidently a horse must be involved). Isn’t there a German word that describes this kind of thinking? If product Y is so bad because it promotes the use of product X then logically should product X not just be removed from the market? Lacking the intestinal fortitude to take that step with product X it just strikes me as quite odd that the supposed reasoned approach is to ban the use of product Y in public places. Perhaps it makes some sense in an overall reduction of harm frame of thinking but not from a logical way of approaching product X and Y.


  1. I think it is quite logical to ban the introduction – at the introduction phase , before the use becomes an acquired right – of what might be a new on-ramp to use of a product one wants to discourage. The product itself is entrenched because of centuries of legal use and the existence of hundreds of thousands of addicts, but that doesn’t mean that public policy should accept new products that encourage greater use of that product.

    Is banning e-cigarettes any different from banning candy-flavoured cigarettes (because that encourages a taste for the product that then addicts) or the sale of individual cigarettes (because that makes them more easily affordable by the target group one is trying to discourage)?

    I recognize that some people say that e-cigarettes are a substitute for ‘real’ cigarettes rather than an encouragement, but in the light of the debate, a government can legitimately decide they are the latter rather than the former, ideally with some evidence in support …

    So one can lock the barn door to keep a new horse from joining all the horses out there in the corral (but who are going to die off, sooner rather than later, if new ones don’t join.)

  2. How does use become an acquired right? either one has a right or one doesn’t (and the default should certainly be that there is a right to do with one selves what they will).

    Your argument John seems to be that politically it is easier to crush something when there are few supporters than wait until there is critical mass. But where the evidence in favour of crushing is pending (at best), wouldn’t it be better to wait?

    Candy cigarettes are actually a good example where they were allowed for a period of time and evidence developed. When the evidence showed they were harmful a ban was implemented with little opposition because of the evidence. This difference in banning e-cigarattes is 1) there is no evidence as yet that it is a gateway and 2) there is some evidence (and logic) suggesting that it reduces the harm associated with nicotine addiction/helps people quit cigarettes. When there is no evidence of harm and potential good, wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until evidence is developed one way or another rather than banning outright? If the evidence does demonstrate a strong harm, then surely that would justify the ban at a later point, even if a significant portion of the population has adopted it?

  3. My point is that it is not illogical to ban something that leads to an activity that is not banned, if one has legitimate reason to discourage that activity. Mark’s original post said it was illogical, and I disagree.

    I agree with James that it would be better to have evidence that the new activity is harmful before banning it. That’s why I said ‘ideally with some evidence in support’. I personally have no views on whether e-cigs are a safer alternative or an on-ramp to a poisonous habit.

    One can debate how strong the evidence has to be before banning something, and different areas of activity might call for different degrees of justification for a ban.