For the past six years, a merry band of u2018vapers' has been gradually growing, coalescing and spreading the word about their nicotine product of choice: the e-cigarette.
Although it is not marketed as a stop-smoking aid, the vaping community is predominantly made up of people who were, until they started using the e-cigarette, smokers. The missionary zeal associated with the recovering tobacco addict is never far from the surface. There is even a sort of vaping palare. ‘Vaping’ is itself short for vaporising. ‘Electro-fags’ contain ‘carts’ filled with ‘e-juice’. Conventional cigarettes are ‘analogue’.
Patented in 2003 and primarily manufactured in China, the e-cigarette’s rise has gone largely unnoticed. The actress Katherine Heigl induced a collective gasp from David Letterman’s audience when she whipped out her e-cigarette on the Late Show in September. Last week, a photograph of X-Factor contestant Matt Cardle puffing on an electro-fag probably generated more confusion than recognition amongst those who saw it.
E-cigarettes look – at a squint – like normal cigarettes, right down to the red tip that glows when used (experienced vapers have learnt that the blue and black variety tend to attract less attention in the pubs and clubs of smokefree Britain). When the device is drawn on, a battery heats an atomiser, which vaporises the nicotine, and the user blows out a satisfying cloud of water vapour. It’s not hard to see how such a product could be an effective substitute for cigarettes. It mimics the act of smoking and delivers nicotine while avoiding the dozens of carcinogens found in the smoke of its combustible cousin.
With the anti-smoking movement now engaged in a war of attrition with the UK’s hardcore of over 10million smokers, and with Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) reaping ever-diminishing returns from its increasingly bizarre wish-list of heavy-handed legislation, a technological innovation that could break the deadlock is just what the doctor ordered. For anti-smoking campaigners, however, there is only one way to deal with this exciting new possibility: e-cigarettes must be banned immediately.
John Banzhaf of ASH International has been whipping up panic about the electro-fag since he first heard about it. The veteran anti-smoking activist has made the evidence-free claim that traces of nicotine in e-cigarette vapour can cause heart attacks in non-smokers and appeals to supporters on his website with this heart-rending plea: ‘If you don’t want people sitting next to you – in a waiting room, restaurant, bar, or any other area where smoking is now prohibited – using one of these devices to get around smoking bans, and forcing you and your loved ones to inhale deadly nicotine, please help now!’
Banzhaf, admittedly, is a cartoon anti-smoking zealot made flesh, but he is not alone in wanting e-cigarettes off the market. Citing the precautionary principle, legislators have already banned them in Australia and Canada. This week, an article in the anti-smoking movement’s house journal, Tobacco Control, has called for regulators everywhere to take e-cigarettes off the market while their safety can be evaluated. Earlier this year, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said it wanted e-cigarettes to be classed as medicinal products and taken off the shelves.
The manufacturers argue that e-cigarettes are not medicines but safe recreational products. Containing just three ingredients – nicotine, water vapour and propylene glycol – the prospect for harm is minimal. Nicotine is not carcinogenic; when peddled by the pharmaceutical industry, it is portrayed as positively ‘therapeutic’. Although it is possible that unscrupulous manufacturers could produce defective devices or make unwarranted health claims, the same is true in most industries and it is something that can be addressed through routine regulation. It does not require prohibition, even on a temporary basis.