Puff Justice

‘Permitting cigarettes while cracking down on e-cigs is worse than barmy. It’s a violation of our civil rights’

The e-cig wars are heating up. Web forums on electronic cigarettes have grown nearly as excitable as sites about cycling. Lacking any medical evidence, the Daily Mail claimed earlier this year that e-cigs “can cause more harm than smoking” — after which the paper was obliged to print an apology.

Duplicating the pleasures of smoking without the inhalation of tobacco toxins, “vaping” (OK — a naff expression) is taking off. UK sales in the last year having multiplied by ten, e-cigs have the potential to overtake the smelly, cancerous version within a decade, in time making the traditional cigarette an anachronism. At natural history museums of the future, school children may gawk at glassed-off, realistically scurfy ashtrays, scattered with tenderly curated butts. So why isn’t this great news?

Some governments are laissez-faire, while others are banning e-cigs outright, or proposing such stringent restrictions, as the EU has done, that the gizmos might as well be illegal. In this ambiguous regulatory environment, the “vaping” community has grown so anxious that numerous users are stockpiling supplies, like survivalists preparing for the end of the world.

Even if you’ve no interest in trying this supremely 21st-century invention, which direction your government heads in the e-cig wars is a good litmus test of whether you live in a truly free country.

For once, the UK has displayed admirable rationality and moderation. Classifying the e-cig as a non-prescription drug like aspirin as of 2016 still keeps it on offer in pharmacies and convenience stores, and I’m all for testing these things for purity. But British common sense could readily be trumped by EU alarmism.

Acting only on a prejudice against any habit that resembles smoking, several American states have banned e-cigs from public places — though the mechanisms emit only vapour and pose no risk of second-hand smoke. California is considering a measure that would allow landlords to forbid vaping, which is odourless, leaving no taint in furnishings and carpets. Brazil has banned the product. Egypt not only bans e-cigs, but will confiscate the kits of tourists at customs, though nearly half of Egyptian men smoke tobacco.

That’s the point. That tobacco is deadly is not in dispute. Yet in all the countries cracking down on e-cigs, tobacco is legal. Permitting such a demonstrably lethal product but stepping on an anodyne substitute is worse than barmy. It’s a violation of civil rights. With such flimsy justifications, what else will they ban?

Further, consider shisha. The UK’s “hubbly-bubbly” business is exploding, the number of parlours having doubled since 2007. Shisha smoking does incinerate tobacco, and according to the BBC a 40-minute hookah session is the equivalent of consuming 100 cigarettes. Shisha, too, comes in exotic flavours, yet the pending EU ban on flavourings in cigarettes will not apply to it. While achieving some wider appeal, shisha is still predominantly popular with Muslims, and you don’t want to upset those people.

The argument against e-cigs — that flavours like cherry crush and bubblegum appeal to children — also applies to shisha. Besides, the vaping industry is happy to restrict sales to over-18s. Its websites already bar purchases from minors (who can lie, but not many minors possess valid credit cards).

Nicotine is addictive, but its effects resemble those of caffeine (also addictive), and the stimulant’s being pretty harmless is why nicotine has been widely available in gums and patches for some time. But only the inhalable form has got the anti-smoking lobby in a tizzy — because it doesn’t entail deprivation. Because it’s fun.

There’s no evidence, either, that e-cigarettes are a gateway to tobacco addiction. At least anecdotally, the conversion works only one way. After sampling an electronic substitute, my husband quit cold a tobacco habit of 42 years, and he’s never looked back. He now has no interest in tobacco. I’m loath for him to revert to roll-ups to maintain a dependency on nicotine because some paranoid bureaucracy has crushed an ingenious innovation in its infancy. A heavy-handed crackdown on e-cigs could push millions of similar converts back to Benson & Hedges. That’s such a warped idea of protecting public health that it would invite the cynical suspicion that the real intent is to protect tobacco taxes (2.5 per cent of the UK budget).

We all grew up on the exhilarating technological promises of the future, some of which, like holidays on other planets, haven’t delivered. But imagine replacing the killer habit of smoking with an equally enjoyable pastime without the horrible health consequences. That future is now. So much about life in the 20-teens is crap. Let’s embrace the fact that something good has happened.

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