It must be very frustrating to give up smoking, with the help of e-cigarettes, only to find that you are no more welcome in public places with a fake cigarette than a real one. UK governments, and many public health advocates, often seem to want to regulate them in the same way, even though the e-cig could be described as a crucial ‘harm reduction’ measure (it’s not exactly healthy, but it’s much better than the other thing you were doing).
Here is a list of historical explanations for this position which won’t make you happy, but can at least distract you while you’re having a sly puff in the toilets:
- We’ve been here before with tobacco and harm reduction. So many post-war examples – like the idea of smoking a pipe, putting filter tips on cigarettes, ‘low tar’ cigarettes (which is a bit like ‘less shite in your sandwich’), and ventilators in public spaces – suggest that ‘harm reduction’ (combined with cheeky advertising) represents a way for members of the tobacco industry to keep people doing what they are doing and avoid government regulation. Someone who has spent decades of their time challenging the industry will see this as just another wheeze.
- Harm reduction has long been rejected in tobacco control. The thing you can hang your hat on is that there is no safe level of smoking – which, since the 1970s/80s has influenced the UK public health message. It’s now very difficult to incorporate a harm reduction message into a field built on a push for abstention – particularly when we don’t yet know how much harm we are reducing.
- Denormalisation. The same goes for the idea of ‘denormalisation’, which describes a series of policy instruments to challenge the idea that smoking is a normal part of public life. Maybe if a bunch of people start puffing away at things that look like mini-bongs instead of imitation cigarettes, that will change – but we’d encourage that shift on the basis of hope. Further, and more importantly, some tobacco companies are getting into the e-cig business and branding them in similar ways to real-cigs. So, for example, the government wouldn’t want to go to the trouble of plain-packaging and hiding cigarettes on the supermarket shelves only to allow a tobacco company to put up a huge branded display for its e-cigs right next to the real ones. If this is really about harm reduction, for some it means getting a utilitarian-looking bit of plastic and a pea-flavoured mix from a pharmacy.
- The politics of evidence-based policy making. Advocates of e-cig control are playing a clever game, arguing that the only way to know the long term effects of e-cigarettes is to distribute them in a controlled environment, to gather data on their use and effects. The argument is: if an e-cig is medicine, let’s regulate it like any other medicine. You can see why this argument would trump others: we’re all biased, and rely on cherry-picked evidence on their effects, or we point to experts that support our position; but, you’d struggle to trump the medical profession when getting together a posse of experts (recommending systematic evidence-based medicine).
- We trust doctors more than tobacco companies. The image of doctors remains of the people on the front line, able to see the damaging effects of unhealthy behaviour. The image of tobacco companies is more likely to relate to the idea that some of them maybe sort-of lied to the US senate about their harmful effects. So, it will always be possible to argue that e-cig advocates are doing the bidding of the tobacco companies. Don’t blame the doctors, blame the companies.
- We could see this as a cover for ‘Big Pharma’, trying to make a tonne of money from the NHS from smoking cessation services – but that’s a difficult argument to make stick when the even less popular ‘Big Tobacco’ seems to be trying to diversify into e-cigs, and use the same branding as it uses for r-cigs.
- Demonising the companies, not the smokers. The vast majority of governments across the globe have made a commitment to cutting ties with the tobacco industry (which includes not consulting with the industry on public policy) and will be looking for ways to sort-of encourage e-cigs over r-cigs and bypass a reliance on the old industry.
Overall, maybe some of this new agenda is driven by people who see the benefit of temperance and like to tell you what to do and where to do it – but, even if there were no ‘new puritans’, you’d still have these problems about what to do when a new e-cig opportunity rubs up the wrong way against well-established tobacco control policy.
See also: Linda Bauld ‘There’s no evidence e-cigarettes are as harmful as smoking’