One of the things I love about America is the freedom you have here – theoretically.
In actual fact, there's sometimes less freedom than you might expect. In Pennsylvania, for example, it's practically easier to buy a handgun than a six pack of beer.
Likewise, in a nation that touts 'freedom of expression' it seems wildly hypocritical that you won't see a nipple on late-night television (but they let louts like Glen Beck on air.)
One area I find wildly hypocritical is America's attitude towards smoking.
Now, I get the smoking ban you have in New York City and other places. Smoking is a dirty, dangerous habit and I certainly don't miss going to a club or bar and coming back with my suit reeking like an ash tray. Smoking cigarettes isn't really a 'freedom' because other people deserve the freedom not to suck cigarette smoke into their lungs if they have the misfortune to sit down next to you.
But I get the distinct impression that lawmakers involved in the regulation of smoking have more to their agenda than just cleaning the atmosphere.
Just over a year ago, for example, New Jersey lawmakers voted unanimously to include electronic cigarettes in their 'clean air act' which banned smoking indoors – even though e-cigarettes don't burn any tobacco and don't produce any smoke.
If you're not familiar with the concept, e-cigarettes are battery-powered devices about the same size and shape as a regular cigarette, which deliver a flavored nicotine "hit" much like a real smoke, but emit nothing more toxic than harmless water vapor. (They're really quite cool – they look just like a real cigarette, even down to the fake smoke vapor, but don't stink up the room.)
They're a wonderful invention because they help smokers quit, or give them the opportunity to indulge their habit without stinking up the entire room and exposing everybody else to their noxious fumes. Or, at least, they would if New Jersey lawmakers hadn't decided to treat e-cigarettes just like regular cigarettes.
Instead, at my office – and many others in the state – you'll find the ridiculous situation of pious former smokers huddled outside, puffing on their fake cigarettes like they used to do when they smoked real cigarettes. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Despite making an enormously tough lifestyle change, these poor sods end up exiled outside with the real smoker, breathing in the same second-hand smoke that New Jersey's "clean air act" was supposed to protect them from.
Why are e-cigarettes included in New Jersey's smoking ban? State Sen. Bob Gordon argues that it's because e-cigarettes are "designed to look like a real cigarette" and "It seems obvious the people who make these devices are trying to make them attractive to younger people."
Which is fair enough – he wants to discourage any form of nicotine addiction. But such an aim is certainly outside of the scope of the "clean air act" to regulate, since these e-cigarettes don't actually pollute the air.
One development I'm looking forward to seeing is the launch of e-cigarettes that don't give out the tell-tale vapor.
A company called Smokefree Innotec, Inc. in Las Vegas is poised to launch a range of e-cigarettes this week that deliver exactly the same e-smoking experience, but don't feature the puff of harmless water-vapor that other e-cigarettes do. This means that people will be able to puff away in the office, airplane or restaurant without some pious patron screaming: "Look at him! He's got an e-cigarette!"
Of course, I imagine these smokeless e-cigarettes are restricted under New Jersey's draconian laws in much the same way other e-cigarettes are – but the difference is that they're utterly clandestine. Without a whiff of vapor emerging after each drag, how can some potentially-outraged coworker, airplane passenger or restaurant patron know that the smoker's taking a hit of nicotine, rather than just sucking on the end of a ball-point pen? I think it might be a game-changer – and eventually force some lawmaker to pull their head from their derriere and admit that this is one vice that really can't be regulated in the same way as smoking.
What makes the situation REALLY interesting is that there are rumors that Smokefree Innotec, Inc. are in negotiations with medical marijuana distributors, to produce refills that make their vapor-less e-cigarettes capable of delivering legal marijuana prescriptions in much the same way as they currently deliver nicotine.
One of the justifications lawmakers have always had for regulating our vices is that they somehow pose harm or inconvenience to other people – second hand smoke, for example, being the primary reason for banning cigarettes in restaurants, bars and public spaces. If you remove that justification – with devices like the vapor-less e-cigarette – just how much longer can lawmakers carry on trying to control our behavior through increasingly absurd interpretations of laws and regulations?