Sometimes you see government take an action, shake your head and simply wonder, “Why?”

Case in point: The Los Angeles City Council will vote soon on an ordinance, approved Feb. 24 by a special committee, that will regulate electronic cigarettes in the same way as tobacco cigarettes, including banning them in public places.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with e-cigarettes knows they simply aren’t the same as tobacco cigarettes. Most obviously, they don’t contain tobacco, or any of its noxious tar. 

They don’t burn. They don’t smell bad. Rather than toxic second-hand smoke, users exhale largely harmless water vapor with trace amounts of chemicals comparable with ambient air (hence the handle “vapers”).

For all those reasons, e-cigarettes seem like the public health boon of the ages. Why would anyone want to do anything to dampen an opportunity to free perhaps millions of smokers from a deadly habit and clear the air for the rest of us?

The answer, as usual in City Hall politics, relates to the axiom that “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Central to any cause or controversy, in turn, are two factors: fear of the new and unknown, and an enemy. E-cigarettes provide both. 

First of all, no matter how many studies are done on the relative safety of the product, no matter how much evidence is compiled on their use and value, there are always new concerns to be raised. 

Then there’s the fact that e-cigarettes offer the perfect foil – the evil tobacco companies, who are making major investments in the segment. If those folks are involved, they have to be up to no good.

But the truth is that tobacco companies now find themselves where phone companies, the music industry, retailers and many other businesses have over the last two decades: face to face with a market-disrupting innovation.

Rapid transition

Like these established industries before them, tobacco marketers must make a rapid transition to a new and better technology – or watch their markets disappear.  

Some industries didn’t make the transition in time, often despite their best efforts. Ask Kodak, which was knocked off its perch and hounded from the market altogether by phones in cameras, or book publishers struggling to deal with online sales or PC makers facing the tablet revolution. These industries and others were either forced to adapt to or give way to the ease, convenience, savings and new benefits to consumers of disruptive technologies.

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