Some of my earliest memories of my father are of him engaging in his nightly ritual—an after-dinner cigarette. I vividly remember the smoke in the air, the black plastic ashtray and the look of total relaxation that would pass over his face.
But his pleasure was to be short-lived. It was the 1980s—and the beginning of many public education campaigns against smoking that extended to my suburban elementary school. In health class, we saw pictures of diseased, blackened lungs, and we learned about the dangers of second-hand smoking. At home my brother and I would hide his ashtray and plaster homemade “No Smoking” and “Smoking Kills” signs around the house. Eventually my dad gave in. Or at least we thought he did.
Years later, I learned he kept on smoking—but only during breaks at work. I never caught a whiff of it and only knew when he came down with COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which makes breathing difficult and worsens over time. Then he quit, but the damage was done.
My father, like many Chinese men of his generation, developed his smoking habit in his teens. In China, 60 percent of men are smokers. Even here in America, the one group that has thumbed their noses at anti-smoking bans are Chinese immigrant populations.
So when I set out to produce a segment about the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes, I was personally intrigued by the stories I’d heard about how e-cigs were a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered at an e-cigarette convention last month.
When I entered the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, I was struck by two things: the overpowering smell of e-cigarette vapor in the air and the overwhelming number of Asian faces. There were people of Asian descent everywhere, milling around the maze of booths, trying out different flavors and examining the latest model of e-cigarettes. I asked one e-cigarette vendor and he confirmed, off the record, that 90 percent of his customers were Asian.
I later learned in my research that the inventor of the first e-cigarette was actually a Chinese medical researcher who was addicted to cigarettes by the time he was in his teens and lost his own father to lung cancer.
But in spite of its aura of health, there’s no proof that e-cigarettes are any more or less effective than patches or other smoking cessation devices. In America, the e-cigarette industry successfully fought to keep their products from being categorized as medical products.
And, in fact, studies are now starting to look at the potential adverse effects of vaping—from the liquids inside them to the public health impacts of second-hand vapor. E-cigarettes may not contain as many toxic ingredients as cigarettes do, but that doesn’t mean it’s as harmless as a cup of coffee.
But while this debate ranges on, the horse has left the stable. It seems like at least one ethnic group has wholeheartedly embraced e-cigs the same way they embraced conventional cigarettes.
The only question is whether in 10 years, a new generation of kids—armed with fresh data—will be taping up “No Vaping” signs around their homes and exhorting their parents to give up e-cigs.