The good news: cigarette smoking is down, to around 17% of Americans. I believe that’s an all-time low. But cigarettes continue to play a main role in fatalities, including 29% of cancer deaths.

I imagine that when we include all smoking-related health problems, the annual death toll approaches a thousand a day. That’s a city the size of New Orleans, lost every year. Obviously we still have a long way to go.

This where e-cigarettes come in. Experts have expressed concern that we’re not using them often enough. An article on the subject notes the bankruptcy of one major e-cigarette manufacturer.

It does seem clear from research that e-cigarettes can help some smokers quit. Or perhaps more accurately, to cut down. Of the dozen smokers of my acquaintance who’ve gone the e-cig route, only one has actually quit smoking altogether. The others periodically relapse to cigarettes, or trade off between e-cigs and the real thing– often in the same day. I’ve been told that this is because conventional e-cigs, including those offered by tobacco companies, are no more than an imperfect substitute for the sensation of smoking. They don’t deliver the rush of a cigarette. Which may be why so many smokers have turned to stronger devices, and the practice of vaping.

You’ve probably noticed the proliferation of “Vape” shops in strip malls– maybe you’ve seen a kid¬† on the corner, spinning a sign. These shops carry “vape pens” with electronic innards that permit the user to control the amount of vapor released. These can be quite potent and abuse of same has motivated ¬†efforts to ban electronic smoking devices altogether.

I don’t know how to do that without creating yet another black market, but I imagine some states will try.

Helps to think of an electronic cigarette as just another drug delivery device, along the lines of a high-tech crack pipe, capable of carrying a number of different substances to the brain. Oils of nicotine and cannabis together, for example, or a variety of chemicals of the sort used in so-called ‘synthetic’ marijuana. The pen simply heats it up to produce an intoxicating vapor. There’s no way for observers to determine exactly what’s being smoked at any given time, especially if an additive masks the odor.

Another consideration: Whether the popularity of such devices among youth (and they are popular) will eventually open a pathway to cigarette smoking at a later age– the way prescription painkillers opened the way to heroin. There’s a vigorous debate on that subject, so I’ll leave it for the moment. But with 37% of US teens reporting experimentation with vaping, the potential for trouble is there.

I sure hope that, in the pursuit of a greater good, science hasn’t let another genie out of the bottle, and the rest of us are now forced to scramble for ways to put it back.