Primitive peoples who relied on magic rather than science to explain how the world works often believed in what is known as “sympathetic magic”—the idea that if item A looks like item B, that means A either shares B's traits or gives you actual power over B.
In modern American pop culture, the best-known example of sympathetic magic is found in voodoo-doll horror movies: “This doll looks just like you, so anything affecting the doll affects you too.” Western-literature majors or Old Testament scholars might also be familiar with the alleged healing or fertility powers of mandrake root — the roots of a mandrake plant often branch out to look somewhat like a four-limbed human figure, ergo the believers in sympathetic magic thought: “Since it looks like people, it must have power over people!”
And belief in sympathetic magic appears to be enjoying a renaissance among those who oppose “e-cigarettes” or “e-cigs,” basically on the grounds that a battery-operated metal tube emitting water vapor looks like a burning tobacco cigarette emitting cancerous smoke, ergo it must have the same disease-inducing power as said tobacco cigarette, right?
Or at least deserves the same stigma. Consider this week, when the Los Angeles City Council voted to treat e-cigs exactly as regular cigarettes by banning the use of e-cig water vapor wherever tobacco smoke has already been banned.
Lack of stigma
The Los Angeles Times,discussing the ban on March 4, mentioned at least one current health official who hates the current lack of stigma attached to e-cig users:
“Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public of Health, said the growing acceptance of "vaping"— as e-cigarette use is known — threatens to undermine decades of public education efforts aimed at stigmatizing smoking.”
Interesting choice of words. There's no denying that smoking tobacco – specifically, inhaling pure tobacco smoke (not water vapor) directly into your lungs – leaves you open to all sorts of health problems: smokers are not guaranteed to suffer lung cancer, emphysema or other ailments, but (all else being equal) their chances of developing these problems are several orders of magnitude higher than a non-smoker's.
And those health risks were the original inspiration behind the first anti-smoking stigmatization campaigns. Yet these is zero evidence to suggest that inhaling water vapor is in any way analogous to inhaling cigarette smoke (if it were, every resident of the humid American southeast would already be dead of lung cancer, along with all regular users of household hot-mist humidifiers and bedside vaporizers).
The Times article about the e-cig ban also quoted Councilwoman Nuny Martinez as saying “We have a right to … choose to breathe clean air.”
This might be a difficult choice to exercise in Los Angeles County, California, which (as of 2012) had approximately 7.1 million registered cars, trucks and motorcycles, the vast majority of which are powered by internal combustion engines belching highly toxic exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. This number does not include the cars owned by and registered to non-Angelenos who nonetheless drive through the city on a given day. The fumes emitted by those 7.1 million registered vehicles in LA are so toxic that being in an enclosed area where one is running is fatal — not in the sense of “It increases your chance of getting cancer 40 years down the road” but “It can kill you in less than five minutes.”
Neither Martinez nor Jonathan Fielding nor anyone else mentioned in that LA Times article explained how or why e-cig water vapor, rather than gasoline exhaust from millions of cars, is the main barrier standing between Nuny Martinez and her right to choose to breathe “clean air.”
Chances are the reason is purely pragmatic: stigmatizing car owners is neither politically nor economically feasible in Los Angeles, whereas stigmatizing tobacco smokers has already been done. And now, thanks to the power of sympathetic magic (backed by the power of City Council decisions), anyone who so much as looks like a tobacco smoker can be stigmatized the same way.