Puritans and the powerful – and tobacco smokers – can’t take the fact that electronic cigarettes are harmless and enjoyable
I’ve long been a decorative smoker. One daily roll-up hasn’t imperilled my health much, and it’s rescued me from the ranks of the self-righteous. I’ve relished the dash of badness, but my indulgence has come at a price: complicity. My more heavily addicted husband has smoked from the age of 19. So long as I join him in the odd postprandial drag, I’m a bad influence.
Last month I switched to an e-cig. I’m a convert. Sleek, black, and easily confused with a fine-point felt-tip, this newfangled “nicotine delivery system” is dead cool. The gently warm vapour ingeniously replicates the reflective pause of a real fag, the same quiet little buzz. But it doesn’t stink up your breath, cover surfaces with ash, turn the air acrid, stain your fingers, brown your teeth, reduce bone mass of the jaw, promote gum disease, or – wait for the drum roll – cause cancer. Nor does an e-cig give anyone in your vicinity cancer.
Why, then, are so many nonsmokers queasy, nay denunciatory, about electronic fags? Why did the EU’s tobacco product directive released last month propose effectively banning any e-cigs that deliver remotely enough nicotine to make them an attractive alternative to tobacco? Isn’t a “tobacco product directive” reaching beyond its remit by seeking to regulate a product containing no tobacco? Why is the sale of a device that administers a mild stimulant about as energising as a cup of coffee already illegal in Denmark, Belgium and Norway? Why do some airlines specifically ban e-cigs, which don’t foul the air on planes?
Socially, the battery-powered fag seems to inspire anything from curiosity to annoyance – as well as contempt in some proper smokers, who consider the counterfeit ciggie cowardly and naff. Fine, call most of us cowardly for being afraid of cancer. What I cannot sanction is the annoyance.
Web forums teem with sniffy disgust towards anyone who substitutes one addiction for another – though there’s no evidence that addiction to nicotine, in the absence of the tar and chemical additives of commercial tobacco, is any more damaging than addiction to caffeine. With e-cigs, it seems you haven’t “really quit”, even if you’ve really quit tobacco, the very substance that sheepish smokers yearn to eschew. In desperation, rabid anti-smokers deride e-cigs as stupid-looking and pathetic. Apparently we’re in danger of “renormalising smoking” after having lavished endless initiatives on making smoking socially unacceptable among all but a sad, quivering few.
Nonsense. If electronic cigarettes became a socially acceptable norm, lung cancer and emphysema rates would plummet. The trouble is that smokers have been demonised medically and morally: not merely bad for public health, but bad, full stop. E-cigs neatly separate the rational, research-backed concern for the health consequences of tobacco from a purely cultural revulsion for a “filthy” habit marking you as evil.
For anti-smoking fanatics, e-cigs must be enraging. They can’t clamber on to that handsome high horse, because what’s to get upset about? Those plastic vapour sticks aren’t gunking anyone’s lungs or even stinking up the drapes. And those dreadful cheats seem to be enjoying themselves! They’re getting away with something horrid scot-free! It isn’t fair! They should get cancer! Imagine the dizzy swoon of indignation deprivation: what’s upsetting is there’s nothing to get upset about.
The EU situation is more unsettling still. The pharmaceutical industry profits from popular but far less effective methods for quitting tobacco such as patches and gums, and spends more than €40m a year lobbying the EU. In the UK in 2011, nicotine replacement therapies were worth £117m in turnover, largely due to NHS freebies. It’s in Big Pharma’s interest to quash the e-cig, now that 7% of Europeans have tried one and in 2013 they are expected to attract more than a million Britons.
Keep an eye on the UK, whose politicians talk righteously, but whose coffers benefit from a whopping £9bn annually in tobacco taxes, dwarfing the £2.7bn smokers cost the NHS each year. (Yet because smokers die seven to 10 years younger, and place little demand on the service once dead, smoking may actually save the NHS money.) If all British smokers switched to e-cigs overnight, the Treasury would be traumatised. The government will never admit to banning e-cigs because it needs the taxes it rakes in from you killing yourself, but watch this space.
You want real evil? What’s truly evil is attempting to deny people addicted to a profoundly damaging substance the opportunity to transfer that addiction to a product most medical professionals rate as 99% harmless. The gathering European opposition to electronic cigarettes is the result of kneejerk cultural prejudice, puritanical vindictiveness, corporate collusion, and the unconscionable greed of tax authorities that won’t be able to heap the same punitive, confiscatory, opportunistic duties on a product that doesn’t hurt anyone.
Sure, there’s a sacrifice in leaving real tobacco behind for a mere simulacrum. You miss dancing on the dark side – the risk, that hint of wickedness. But since your detractors can’t have kittens any more, you get something in return: glee.