Sitting on a patio in Kensington Market over the weekend as smokers on either side of me lit up, it felt like someone had flipped the time machine switch and transported us all back a decade.
Where were the smoke police? The bylaw enforcers? Oh, right, smoking is mostly legal on patios in this town. Shame.
Ontario may have refused to bring in a patio ban, but some jurisdictions are cracking the whip on any public smoking. Ottawa and Vancouver have outlawed smoking on city-owned beaches and in parks as well as restaurant patios.
Whether they're trying to get around a ban or not, more and more people are turning to smokeless e-cigs. These are electronic devices that mimic the experience of smoking tobacco, though the user is really inhaling a vapour that includes nicotine.
My partner came home from a recent poker night thrilled that the room wasn't filled with the blurry smoke of guys sneaking cigarettes away from their families but instead was full of e-smokers. Were they accidental environmentalists, too? Are e-cigs actually a greener choice for nicotine-heads?
Well, to begin with, while electronic cigarettes aren't technically permitted for sale (or rather, Health Canada hasn't approved any for sale), they're easy to score online as well as in some variety stores.
Pit e-cigs against traditional smokes and what I can tell you is that the traditional kind account for a hell of a lot more air pollution. They send out a puff of up to 4,000 chemicals with every drag, including carcinogenic formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene and hydrogen cyanide.
E-cigarettes are essentially smokeless and don't emit the same air-polluting volatile organic compounds that traditional cigarettes do - even the organic kind. However, with e-ciggies you're generally vapourizing a mix of liquid nicotine and propylene glycol, a petrochemical that can cause an allergic reaction.
Some brands are made with a vegetable glycerin base; these could be considered the greener of the two, since VG is essentially a by-product (aka waste product) of biodiesel manufacturing.
Testing by the U.S. FDA found that e-cigarettes do release trace tobacco-related carcinogenic nitrosamines. But critics say the FDA has failed to do similar testing on other government-approved nicotine products, including patches and gum; Swedish research has found that nicotine gum contains the same nitrosamines.
Though Health Canada says e-smokes pose health risks and haven't been properly evaluated for safety, the American Association of Public Health Employees and Britain's Royal College of Physicians both consider e-cigarettes a safer nicotine-delivery system than conventional cigarettes. Not that I'm advising you on the health effects of these vaporizers by any means.
E-cigs, patches and nicotine gum all get their nicotine from tobacco, and wherever you get your nicotine, the problems associated with growing tobacco are the same. Think child labour on tobacco farms in developing countries, pesticide pollution - including over 25 million pounds of pesticides every year on American tobacco alone. I've yet to see any certified organic e-cigs, or nicotine gum for that matter.
Probably the biggest enviro advantage to electronic cigarettes is the end of butts. In 2002, over 38 billion cigarettes were sold in Canada, according to Health Canada, and that means over 38 billion trashed butts in one year.
Billions of these ended up washing off streets, down drains, into rivers, lakes and streams where the cellulose acetate filters (from wood pulp) end up leaching the 4,000 chemicals pulled into them with each breath. Even in the right conditions, those filters don't biodegrade back into nature but photodegrade into smaller and smaller bits after a decade or so.
Naturally, you have to factor in the full environmental footprint of making this electronic gadget (including its batteries). Depending on the maker, batteries are either rechargeable or disposable, so if you're shopping around, look for the rechargeable kind, but keep in mind that once they stop holding a charge, you'll need to make sure you're recycling them safely (see call2recycle.ca for drop boxes near you).
Possibly the stupidest things I've come across are disposable e-cigarettes designed to be recharged maybe three times and then tossed. Who's the schmuck who thought of that?
As long as you stay away from these, pick vegetable-glycerine-based options and try your very best to use the device as a tool to quit smoking for good (the most important factor), I'd say yes, e-cigs are the lesser evil.