Now they want to stub out fake cigarettes
Anti-tobacco campaigners want to make Britain ‘smokefree’ - so what have they got against smokeless e-cigarettes?
A common refrain from those in favour of various illiberal measures in the name of clamping down on tobacco is that it’s up to smokers if they want to harm themselves but others shouldn’t have to breathe in their fumes.
Most smokers these days would probably agree, within reason. So you’d think the advent of the e-cigarette, a neat innovation which lets smokers get their nicotine fix without producing any unpleasant smoke, would be a cause for celebration. After all, the aim of the campaign against the ‘evil weed’, which in Britain, as elsewhere around the world, culminated in a ban on smoking in public places, was to make Britain ‘smokefree’. Yet for the anti-smoking lobby smoke-free cigarettes come with their own risks, and must be eliminated.
E-cigarettes, also known as personal vapourisers, are an exciting proposition for smokers chilled by al fresco puffing. The battery-powered tubes function by heating cartridges filled with nicotine and propylene glycol, producing a smoke-like vapour which gives you the nicotine high and the wonderful sensation of blowing smoke but you ingest far fewer chemicals and get none of the unpleasant odours. So e-cigarettes are perfectly legal to smoke in the pub or the workplace without offending non-smokers around you, while niftily looking like a normal cigarette (even down to a glowing red tip at the end) (1).
So a happy compromise then? A wonderful example of human ingenuity finding a novel solution to a longstanding social problem? Not according to nagging health officials. In the US, a ban on imports of e-cigarettes from China was only lifted last week when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which claims the e-ciggies have not been proved safe, was ordered to stop the block. However, as the New York Times reported, the FDA’s new tobacco division will now be able to ‘regulate the contents and marketing claims of e-cigarettes in the same way it is about to begin regulating traditional tobacco products’ (2).
Hot on the heels of the US verdict, the British Medical Journal yesterday weighed into the debate, publishing a report which states that e-cigarettes are largely untested and unregulated, even though it also concludes that the levels of toxic and carcinogenic compounds in e-cigarettes are ‘in possibly much smaller concentrations than in traditional cigarettes’. The report cites three studies, including one by the FDA on the effects of inhaling propylene glycol (which is FDA-approved as a food additive).
It’s reasonable to exercise some caution in offering new products for public consumption, but it’s also worth remembering that the e-cigarettes are designed to look like cigarettes, are marketed as the closest thing you can get to the real deal and are subject to all the same scare warnings as tobacco products. The e-cigarette is cautiously marketed as slightly less damaging to health than traditional cigarettes and as far less socially stigmatising. It is this which really troubles the regulators: unlike those clinical-looking plastic inhalators used by smokers to wean themselves off the evil weed, the e-cigarette doesn’t do enough to remind its users of the dangers of real smoking.
Man smoking an e-cigarette
Alternative smoking devices are not entirely new. Indeed, back in 1989 the FDA banned imports of an earlier version of a simulated cigarette, and manufacturers have been making e-cigarettes in their current form for about five years. As a relatively new product with an uncertain consumer base, e-cigarette distributors point out that they simply do not have the finances to submit their products to rigorous study. To be fair, their customer base hardly demands it: smokers who are already regularly using a product which no one seriously doubts can give you cancer might be said to have a different conception of risk from others and are not likely to think it’s too dangerous to trade real cigarettes for fake ones.
For all the handwringing over public health, no serious study has been done into the e-cigarette’s possible ill-effects. The New York Times reported in 2009 that only one full US study had been carried out, and that focused on the levels of nicotine processed by its users (less than a fifth of a regular smoke, coincidentally) (3). This might explain why e-cigarettes are being treated with such suspicion. As has been argued on spiked before, public health campaigns today are less concerned with informing people of real risk than with moralising about unhealthy or unlikeable lifestyles.
Indeed, one US-based anti-tobacco campaigner focused on the idea that e-cigarettes could ‘discourage current smokers from quitting by providing an alternative in smoke-free spaces’ and argued that offering different flavours such as menthol or cherry ‘could serve as a pathway to nicotine addiction for children’. Meanwhile, California’s attorney-general Jerry Brown (the subject of the Dead Kennedys’ song ‘California Uber Alles’) wants to see e-cigarettes banned outright (4). He is echoing New York City’s health commissioner Dr Thomas Farley, who last year happily admitted that proposals to ban smoking in parks had nothing to do with worries about passive smoking, but were really about modifying public behaviour and attitudes to the act of smoking itself (5).
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Ironically, for those who wish to drive out the moral stain of smoking, the prospect of a healthier and socially acceptable alternative to the cigarette is even more horrifying than the good old-fashioned coffin nail. Indeed, when e-cigarettes first came to public attention in 2008, those addicted to whining took the opportunity to huff and puff about some other fears. Deborah Arnott, director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), was concerned about their provenance in dirty, polluting China where ‘quality control is not the highest’ (6). Westerners used to worry about the ‘Yellow Peril’; now it is the ‘yellow-stained peril’ corrupting our children and doing us harm.
Smoking bans have never been about protecting non-smokers; if they were, we might have had a sensible discussion on introducing non-smoking pubs while keeping some smoking pubs. Smokers used to be demonised as selfish polluters of others’ air or were depicted as being deluded about the ill-effects of tobacco. But now smokers are increasingly portrayed as addicted nicotine slaves who must be prevented from harming themselves and, more importantly, from harming children and others around them. The anti-smoking lobby has even been willing to airbrush cigarettes out of pop culture iconography, lest they encourage teenagers to have sinful thoughts about self-abuse (7).
For too long, smokers and opponents of the smoking ban have been guiltily accommodating to others, shifting further outside and becoming even more furtive in their habits. But now we can clearly see that air pollution and health risks were only ever convenient excuses for finger-wagging and for expressing distaste for dirty people and their dirty ways. It’s time the idea of a ‘smokefree’ world went up in flames.
David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.
(1) [footnote removed as dead link]
(2) Judge Orders F.D.A. to Stop Blocking Imports of E-Cigarettes From China, New York Times, 14 January 2010
(3) Cigarettes Without Smoke, or Regulation, New York Times, 1 June 2009
(4) Calif AG Sues E-Cigarette Maker, Says Cigs Unsafe, New York Times, 14 January 2010
(5) NYC: the city that never smokes, Patrick Basham and John Luik, 26 October 2009
(6) Health fears about the e-cigarette that is legal to smoke indoors, The Times (London), 8 October 2008
(7) Beatles Abbey Road cigarette airbrushed, BBC News, 21 January 2003