by Carl V Phillips
I have previously pointed out that the use of the term “ENDS” (electronic nicotine delivery system) as a substitute for “e-cigarette” is a mistake for THR supporters and an unethical act for scholars. Most recently I did so in the exchange about the new Nutt paper mentioned here. But the questions that ensue when I state this make it apparent that I need to write down a more complete exposition of the point. It is apparently very far from obvious to many readers (which I have to say, I find a bit dismaying; on the other hand, the fact that it is not obvious is one of the reasons it is so insidious).
I am not sure who coined the term “ENDS” (if anyone knows, please speak up [*]), but it gained traction in publications by anti-tobacco and anti-THR activists. But it was then naively adopted by scholars and even pro-THR commentators. An important observation to make, before getting to the ethical points, is that the term serves no purpose. Sometimes science and other scholarly discourse creates a term to describe a worldly thing that is useful to discuss but is not labeled in common language. If, for example, there was value in doing a scientific analysis of drinks whose alcohol content was between 10% and 25% ABV, it would be useful to create a term like “medium alcohol drinks”. Of course, it would be inappropriate to choose that particular term because of the unfortunate acronym, but some term would be useful for effective communication.
[*UPDATE: via Twitter from Jake Jacobsen @Jake2001: “termed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS)” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2978165/ 12/2010.” That seems to refer to this U.N. document, which other correspondents also believe was the coining.]
“ENDS” does not serve that purpose. It just means “e-cigarette”. It is easy to see the possible value in creating a category that includes all nicotine inhaler devices, whether electronic or not, to be able to discuss the common properties of e-cigarettes, Nicorette inhalers, Voke, and other near-future innovations. But “electronic nicotine delivery device” is even more tied to the word “electronic” than is “e-cigarette”. (Aside: there is a good chance that “e-cigarette” will become the collective term for all consumer-friendly nicotine inhaler devices, whether electronic or not. That is just the way that language tends to work, and the original meaning of the “e” will not matter.) Even worse, if you unpack “ENDS” as a technical description, you realize that it applies to, say, a hypothetical motion-sensor-activated dispenser for nicotine dermal gel, or for that matter, to a cigarette vending machine.
Thus, there is no defense to be found in the claim that this term is useful. The issue would be more complicated if there were. Moreover, it turns out that the term is actually less technically accurate than the culturally-accepted term, “e-cigarette”.
So why is the term used and what makes it unethical to use in scientific papers and similar forums?
The story starts with the cultural anthropology (not necessarily called that) of the European imperial age, where the researchers treated their subjects as subhuman objects of study. The subjects’ self-knowledge was ignored and the analyses, such as they were, began with various derogatory assumptions that overrode any evidence. (Sound familiar?) While not the worst aspect of it, part of this was refusing to use the culture’s own vocabulary for itself or its behaviors and artifacts — after all, serious rich white scholars would not want to take cues from those disgusting primitive people. Instead, the imperialists made up terms which, even when not overtly derogatory in themselves, became code words for the disdain that they contained.
Of course, such practices are largely absent — and more-or-less forbidden — in modern social science. Some might argue that the pendulum has swung too far, and that social sciences are too deferential to the peoples being studied and cultural relativism interferes with good analysis. But whatever one’s position on that point, there is little disagreement that imperialist imposition of vocabulary on cultures that are foreign to (and considered inferior by) those in the ivory towers is denigrating, inappropriate, and unethical.
The e-cigarette is not a value-free object that can be studied without reference to society. It is an important cultural artifact — indeed, it is virtually an icon among a large subculture. Thus, it needs to be treated with proper respect. To impose an ivory tower name on it is a conscious and aggressive act of denying an oppressed culture the right to their own vocabulary. For comparison, imagine if researchers studying hip hop music started referring to it as “amelodic beat-based acoustics”. This would clearly be considered unacceptable (and the vaguely insulting and conceptually misleading acronym adds to this, as it does with “ENDS” — unlike cigarettes, ENDS do not end people to a serious extent). Of course, it might not be that no one would ever read the journal papers about amelodic beat-based acoustics, and so it would not matter much, but this is obviously not the case in the world of tobacco politics.
Aside: If researchers decided they shared some vapers’ dislike of having the letters “c-i-g-a-r-e-t-t-e” in the name of the category, they could adopt one of the secondary accepted term for the devices like “PVs”. Similarly the researchers in the analogy could refer to “rap music”. Any of those vocabulary choices has its advantages and disadvantages when interpreted closely and parsed against exactly what it means in common language (and thus in any analysis where the exact details of the artifact matter, they should be specified in the paper, whatever term is used). There is a lot to be said for using the dominant term. But the point is that imposing an ivory tower name that ostentatiously refuses to use any of the culture’s accepted vocabulary is denigrating.
Moreover, the historical context in this case need not be limited to the behaviors of imperial times and the ethical standards that evolved as a response. The same faction of anti-tobacco and anti-THR activists who popularized “ENDS” intentionally referred to smokeless tobacco as “spit tobacco”, including in scientific papers (and a few still do, though the efforts of Brad Rodu and others have done a lot to put an end to this insult). Thus there is clear recent evidence of vocabulary choices like “ENDS” being used to intentionally denigrate the people who the (ostensible) scientists were studying.
Obviously there is no way to stop the unethical anti-tobacco/nicotine extremists from disdaining the people they are studying and making that disdain clear. But those who are not choosing to express this disdain should avoid getting tricked into complicity by using the term, and scholars should avoid it for that reason and as a matter of professional ethics. Words matter in issues like this, which is why oppressed groups with semi-organized advocates (black people, LGBT people) have repeatedly changed the accepted terminology for themselves and their cultural artifacts. It is an attempt to stay ahead of the codeword “-isms” of coined denigrating terms that creep into the common vocabulary and make the very act of discussing the groups a subtle insult. Make no mistake, “ENDS” is exactly such a term.
Of course, one of the responses to denigrating terms is to adopt the insulting term to take away its power, as was done with “queer” and many other such terms. But there is no reason to fall back to that difficult response, which may be required when a term becomes too widely used. “ENDS” is not all that common and it is still possible to object to it and, obviously, refuse to use it.
For people in the vaping community, using this term is to be complicit in allowing others (others who look down upon you) to define you. For those of you doing scholarship, publishing journals, etc., allowing “ENDS” or “spit tobacco” into your vocabulary is like writing “queer” in 1975 or “wog” in 1900, differing only in that it is a sneakier way of trying to assert superiority.