How smokers’ rights are being vapourised

The anti-smoking lobby has now targeted electronic cigarettes in order to crack down even on the ‘notion’ of smoking.

In the battle for smokers’ rights, it is fair to say that those who like to indulge in the ‘evil weed’ have been on the losing side so far. Few people want to stick up for smokers and those who do argue for free choice are frequently accused of harbouring a sinister commercial agenda.

It’s not hard to see why smoking may not exactly be popular. Many people find tobacco smoke fairly unpleasant and the health dangers of active smoking are certainly real. In the absence of a real commitment to freedom in society, no permanent compromises with smokers are possible, no matter how much they segregate themselves from the rest of society. As such, the strictures on smoking have long passed from simple public-health measures and into the territory of behavioural control via legislation. How else can anyone describe the crazed idea of thirdhand smoke (previously known as the lingering smell of burnt tobacco)?

But smoking bans, seemingly, are not enough. A campaign is already well underway to force manufacturers to put tobacco products in standardised plain packaging, supposedly because slick graphic design alone is enough to make people inhale burning leaves. Ireland, the first EU country to introduce a widespread smoking ban, is now working on legislation to ban smoking in cars with children. Despite assurances that it is not the case, there can be no doubt that this will, sooner or later, transform into an outright ban on smoking in vehicles, with the ultimate aim of a ban on smoking at home. Never mind individual liberties: say goodbye to simple property rights.

Where once people were simply asked not to smoke around children, today the full force of the law is used to ensure compliance with social norms (which in itself rather suggests the inability of society today to develop any actual agreed social norms). More dispiriting still is the fact that a neat solution to the problem of the conflicting rights surrounding smoking has arrived, and yet it is already in the sights of ban-happy officials.

In response to the moral miasma that surrounds smoking today, some smokers have taken matters into their own hands and used the latest technological development – electronic cigarettes - to continue enjoying a puff. Designed by pharmacist Hon Lik, they are battery-powered devices that vapourise liquid nicotine which is then inhaled. Nothing is burnt and no smoke is produced at all, just water vapour. So if you see someone sucking on what looks like a biro with an LED on the end, chances are they’re inhaling vapourised nicotine.

As a result, there is no ‘secondhand smoke’, something that you would think would be a cause for celebration among anti-smokers. Famously, tobacco smoke contains 250 toxic substances, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and lead. Getting rid of tobacco smoke entirely and replacing it with water and nicotine is surely a win-win situation, then? No such luck. Health officials, politicians and anti-smoking groups are banging the drum for action on this tobacco substitute.

Unlike other cigarette substitutes, such as nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT) gum and patches, e-cigarettes have attracted the opprobrium of the anti-smoking lobby, not because they are dangerous - by any standard, inhaling vapourised nicotine is far less dangerous than smoking burning tobacco leaves and additives - but because they are not specifically designed as a method of quitting smoking. Countless studies show that most smokers want to quit. Indisputable as this is, what these studies tend to neglect to mention is that while smokers do wish to quit, both for health reasons and due to the ever-increasing cost of cigarettes, the majority also happen to enjoy smoking.

That’s why e-cigarettes have found a market. As is often the case with subcultures, however, e-cigarette users - who call themselves ‘vapers’ - have a tendency to be slightly messianic and have developed a fairly impenetrable jargon around the act. Given that using an e-cigarette, with its weird LED, already has the unfortunate effect of making the user look like a Bond villain or an extra from Doctor Who, the last thing e-cigarettes need is a geeky subculture to deter normal people from trying them.

Off-putting as all this is, though, the case against e-cigarettes is fairly threadbare. While there are no conclusive studies that say e-cigarettes are harmless, there is every reason to believer they are considerably less harmful than smoking actual cigarettes. By doing away with ‘secondhand smoke’ (and firsthand smoke, for that matter), as well as replacing tobacco, tar and additives with pure nicotine, e-cigarettes pose no discernible danger to those around users.

This has done little to satisfy anti-smoking crusaders. Most laughably, e-cigarettes have been the subject of worries on the basis that they are a Chinese invention; as every good illiberal knows, the Chinese can’t be trusted. Clearly this is the precautionary principle at work, but it is also obvious that no matter how much smokers are isolated from others and the harm of smoking is reduced, nothing will ever be enough to satisfy the cravings of tobacco haters, who are constantly in need of their next, freedom-stubbing fix.

To say the situation is confused is a major understatement. Denmark has effectively outlawed e-cigarettes by declaring them medical devices and refusing to issue licences for their sale (thereby creating a rent-seeking situation where pharmaceutical companies’ NRT products are protected from competition), while Finland has banned the marketing of e-cigarettes. The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland has forbidden chemists from selling the devices, though shops outside their control, such as newsagents, continue to stock them for now. The German city of Hanover has banned the use of electronic cigarettes in civic buildings while the US state of New Jersey has banned their use in indoor public places, as is already the case with tobacco.

A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempt to ban e-cigarettes was quashed by the court of appeal on the basis that they were marketed to smokers as an alternative to tobacco rather than as a medicinal product. In Britain, a 2010 attempt by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to ban e-cigarettes was rebuffed by the government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee, but the battle is far from over and, at EU level, e-cigarettes are being considered for control under revisions to the 2001 tobacco-products directive.

In 2011, Ireland’s TobaccoFree Research Institute told Irish Medical News it was ‘not in favour of any device that promotes the notion of cigarette smoking’. So there you have it: it is not just smoking that must be stubbed out, but the ‘notion’ of smoking. Not content with imposing ever more restrictions on how smokers behave, it is increasingly obvious that what really causes anti-smokers to light-up (with rage) is that electronic cigarettes allow people to continue smoking with impunity, ignoring smoking bans, not having to say that they are ‘planning to quit’ and generally apologise for existing. And where the lobbies screech, politicians are sure to follow.

Indeed, rather than being celebrated, the fact that e-cigarettes are a new potential way to quit smoking altogether provides a useful fig leaf for prohibitionists because any ‘smoking cessation’ product must be regulated as a medicine and can therefore be banned by the back door. When it comes to smoking, it seems that eliminating the risk to others and reducing the risk to oneself just isn’t good enough.

As HL Mencken put it: the definition of a Puritan is someone who has the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having fun. He could easily have had the modern anti-smoking lobby in mind.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. Visit his web site at http://jasonwalsh.ie.

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