Anti-vaping campaigners are a threat to public health
If today's Public Health England report on vaping shows anything, it's that those who oppose it are a threat to public health.
The report found that "e-cigarette use is around 95% less harmful to health than smoking". They pose "no risk of nicotine poisoning to user". Most of the chemicals causing smoking-related disease are absent and "the chemicals present pose limited danger".
It found that vaping is extremely successful at helping smokers quit cigarettes. And they are used almost exclusively by former smokers – dispelling the argument that they will somehow lead non-smokers to cigarettes.
There is also no harm to anyone around the vaper. As the report found, "e-cigarettes release negligible levels of nicotine into ambient air with no identified health risks to bystanders".
We're at an early stage on understanding the potential risks of vaping, but then, this is the stage we're at. We do not base our current decisions on the possibility of future evidence, we base them on what we have in front of us. And what we have in front of us strongly suggests vaping is very low risk and possibly completely harmless.
Which is what makes the next finding in the report particularly damning:
"Over the last year, there has been an overall shift among adults and youth towards the inaccurate perception of e-cigarettes as at least as harmful as cigarettes."
This is devastating. We are looking at a technology which appears capable of saving millions of lives. And so much misinformation about it is being churned out that people are turning against it.
You can't blame them. The hysteria around vaping has been pretty constant. The Welsh government has decided to bring in a workplace ban. Many workplaces have forced vapers outside to stand with smokers, giving the impression that the two activities are just as dangerous for the people that do them and those around them. Many of these policies followed a World Health Organisation report saying they should be banned indoors.
Anti-smoking groups like Ash and Cancer Research have been divided. For years now they have had internal debates and their public pronouncements are only just starting to cautiously welcome the technology. But they have a far prouder record, it should be noted, than their US counter-parts, who did so much to drive suspicions about vaping. When you speak to an anti-smoking campaigner, their view on vaping is a pretty good guide to whether they are of the pragmatic or the puritanical variety.
The latter have been in the ascendant for some time. The anti-smoking movement is increasingly driven more by emotion and messianic momentum than evidence. No-one is questioning the deadly effects of smoking. But then no-one claims second-hand smoke on a beach or in a pub garden is deadly. But nevertheless the call is for bans to be imposed in these locations. It’s packaged up as protecting children from seeing the activity, but the logic is the same as the normalisation argument used against vaping. It's about the sight of something, rather than the medical reality of it.
And if vaping reaches its full potential, puritanical anti-smokers are going to like it even less. The best way to get people off smoking is not to follow the protestant abstinence agenda of the NHS and the anti-smoking lobby – the people who seem to bathe in the misery of quitting, who feel that smokers must go through some sort of trial-by-punishment before they can emerge as pure, unsmelly, decent members of society. This technique has been shown to be useless. Those patches? That gum? Useless.
You get people off smoking not by punishing them, but by rewarding them. That's one of the reasons Allen Carr's books on quitting smoking were so effective. They tried to get the reader to enjoy the feeling of desiring nicotine and not having it. Instead of demanding penance, they celebrated change.
The same goes for vaping. The solution is not, as the Public Health England report seems to suggest, to hand e-cigarettes to doctors and have them put on prescription. It is not to medicalise them at all, or even treat them as smoking cessation aids. It is simply to make them as attractive as possible. People shouldn’t switch to vaping to stop smoking. They should switch because it’s better than smoking.
There is a thriving culture among vapers, made up people playing around with atomisers and mods and all sorts of other geeky stuff, changing bits and pieces on the back and front end of these strange new devices. They're altering the strength, the heaviness and smoothness of the smoke. And then they play with flavours, adding hints of vanilla to this or that. It's like a combination of DIY geekery and wine tasting – mechanical and sensual at the same time. Basically, vaping makes cigarettes look out of date. Cigarettes are black and white terrestrial TV. Vaping is satellite.
These guys aren't anti-smoking. They love smoking. They're just anti-cigarettes. For a long time that was a distinction which would have made no sense. But technology means it now does. And that fact could save millions of lives.
The puritanical wing of the anti-smoking movement will fight this culture all the way, because it is positive and upbeat and fundamentally pro-smoking. There will be many workplaces and legislatures who follow their lead and ban vaping indoors. They are a menace to public health. The real public health defenders are those whose excitement and inspiration about their hobby encourages more cigarette smokers to join them.