There is an elderly chronic smoker in E-Cig City in Laguna Beach. You can just tell. She has that ashen look, a little gaunt, with breathing to match. She quietly gulps air between her sentences like exclamation points.
She is talking and listening to her adult daughter, who is explaining how to use the battery-powered e-cigarette contraption. A salesperson is assisting.
It seems complicated to the older woman but she is trying to pay attention. She wants to learn. She knows it's important.
The daughter is eagerly optimistic, but there is also a slight desperation to her voice, as if there is only one chance at a successful demonstration.
The older woman brings the tip of the device to her lips and inhales.
And like a newborn, she coughs.
"It takes some getting used to," the daughter says quickly. "We can adjust the flavor."
They continue fooling with the device, adjusting and optimizing, hoping for something that works.
This scene is happening every day, every hour, everywhere across the world.
To call e-cigarettes or vaping a fad diminishes the struggle smokers undertake to quit smoking. Clearly, it is another solution in the fight against addiction.
Contrast that scene, however, with another recent one in Laguna. At the end of summer, my boys and I were waiting for a trolley at a bus stop. I could tell someone had walked up close behind me and when I turned I got a face full of "smoke."
When it went into my lungs it felt wet, almost syrupy, with a strange scent.
I coughed and felt assaulted. For a split second, I wondered if it was a drug, something new the kids were doing. In Laguna, you never know.
Then I saw the device and realized what it was. But it did not assuage my feelings of violation. I don't want people blowing stuff in my face.
So here we are. On the one side is the desire to quit smoking, which is all goodness, and on the other, people who don't want their personal space violated.
The challenge with e-cigarettes is that they look like the real thing. There is something that resembles a cigarette. There is "smoke," and there can be a smell.
E-cigarette advocates will argue — sometimes loudly — over the details of the components. It's vapor, they say, not smoke.
And those who want strict enforcement will say there is nicotine and traces of cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines, so more scientific study is needed.
Either way, the practical reality is people don't want the stuff wafting in their face. They don't want it in restaurants. They don't want it around their young children.
If we make an exception for e-cigarettes in public, where do we draw the line?