E-cigarettes, those controversial little multicolor puff machines with just as many powerful enemies as high-profile devotees, continue their indomitable rise in the United States. Most recently, they’ve invaded one of the last frontiers where Marlboros traditionally reigned supreme not only as a pastime but also as black market currency: prisons.
According to The New York Times, the wardens and sheriffs across the nation are encouraging vaping. The authorities say they’re switching to e-cigarettes as a revenue steam after budget cuts, buying low and selling high, to help pay the guards a fairer wage. In theory, the e-cigs would also improve the health of the inmates. Though the medical fate of e-cigs remains uncertain, a lot of experts strongly believe that, at the very least, the vapor-machines are better for you than carcinogen-rich cigarettes.
Of course, what's interesting is that the prisons' policy stands in sharp contrast to most civic reactions to e-cigarettes, which have largely been skeptical if not swift and entirely dismissive. Late last year, for instance, NYC banned them from all public spaces, effectively taking them under the same rules as combustible cigarettes.
It's hard to argue with good intentions like the sheriff's, but they would be wise to practice caution when selling e-smokes. Introducing them to nonsmoking prisoners could create a vicious cycle for them. "I’m not sure why, in a general way, we would want to sell nicotine addiction," says Dr. Neil Schluger of the World Lung Foundation. "But that’s what they’re selling. At the moment there’s no regulation or oversight of the production of e-cigarettes, and we don’t really know what the life long effects might be of smoking nicotine."
On the other hand, however, anti-vapers may wish to give pause before picketing any prisons. Several states have already banned smoking in prisons and jails, basically making every prisoner who smokes quit cold turkey in a possibly hostile environment. E-cigarettes can help mitigate the risk of someone, well, flipping out. "When these guys get in here they’re wound up anyway, and then you tell them they’re not getting cigarettes, and it’s on,” said Jason Armstrong, who runs inmate accounts at the Greene County Detention Center in eastern Tennessee, which began selling e-cigarettes in September, told theTimes. “Now, they’re pretty much getting their nicotine fix, so it’s cut down on altercations.”
If there is one, true thing that an e-cigarette is good for, it is making people replace smoking in the short term with vaper.