We all remember the days before the smoking bans. I was a smoker and I remember all too well smoke filled pubs and clubs: my clothes and hair smelling, my eyes streaming, ash and burn marks on my clothing – and I thought nothing of it. This was normality. Now put yourself in the place of the non smoker who suffers the same, but with none of the benefits of nicotine use. A never smoker said to me recently that the widespread support for bans on smoking in enclosed spaces was, whether or not the science on the dangers of second hand smoke is correct, non smokers pushing back. They were saying that smokers had inflicted the by-products of their habit on them for too long, and now it was going to stop. And of course the non smokers were in the majority so the result was inevitable.
Seven years later we now find ourselves facing the same issues with vaping. Except that this is different, as there are no known adverse effects to bystanders from the vapour emitted from e-cigarettes, and for their users, the huge majority of whom are current or ex smokers, they are vastly safer than consuming lit tobacco. The ability to use e-cigarettes in enclosed spaces is one of the factors which make them attractive to smokers, many of whom will switch to them completely. It is also one of the factors which create distance between the habits of smoking and vaping, and that distance is important in preventing relapse to smoking.
But we live in a world now where the non smoking public, having won their battle for smoke free air in enclosed spaces, is protective of it. Furthermore, encouraged by the more zealous anti smoking organisations, they are pushing for more – in the US there are areas where in some circumstances it is illegal to smoke in your own home and here in the UK we are now seeing calls for bans in outdoor spaces such as parks and at beaches. It is not at all uncommon these days for non smokers to complain at the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke, for example in a tweet I saw recently a non smoker on a camp site was complaining at being able to smell cigarette smoke coming from another tent. In public opinion today there is no longer any need for there to be any notion of harm, simple distaste is apparently enough. Like it or not, the social norm has changed.
Against this background smokers across the developed world have turned in their millions to e-cigarettes. First brought to the market by a Chinese pharmacist in around 2004, the uptake of these products has been staggering, and the innovation which has followed has been too much for all but the most ardent of enthusiasts to keep up with. And too much it seems, for many in tobacco control too. Faced with a consumer lead revolution towards a product which is both attractive to smokers and orders of magnitude safer than combustible cigarettes, they are on the back foot. Some in tobacco control nevertheless advocate bans and restrictions based on little more than theoretical risks of renormalisation of smoking, the rehabilitation of their sworn enemy the tobacco industry and unknown future risks to health which, even if they materialise are unlikely to affect anyone other than the consumers themselves, and to a much lesser degree than the only true comparator, smoking lit tobacco.
Smokers who switched to vaping understandably thought that they had found a situation which would be welcomed by all. They had found a way by which they could continue to use nicotine, a well understood drug with a harm risk profile similar to caffeine, but via a delivery system devoid of the 4,000 odd toxins contained in lit tobacco. They were dramatically reducing the harm done to themselves, and also that said to be being done to others. Because the vapour emitted by e-cigarettes disperses very quickly and is almost odourless this should have been a socially acceptable method by which to consume nicotine.
However, they reckoned without the effects of the social engineering undertaken by the tobacco control movement. So successful were the policies of denormalisation in turning smokers into social pariahs that there is little sympathy among some sectors of the public for those smokers who choose to vape. And they are still seen by many in the tobacco control movement as the hopelessly addicted victims of the tobacco industry, weak willed (or deluding themselves into believing they enjoy nicotine) and beyond realistic help. So in order to minimise the as yet unsubstantiated theoretical future risks, policy recommendations dictate that these people are simply sacrificed as collateral damage in the war against the tobacco industry. If vapers are not careful the public will support these policies, just as they did with the smoking bans, and for even less good reason.
Another non smoker described to me what he felt was the issue. He believes that many vapers are “liberated smokers” with memories of all of the persecution that went with being a smoker, and so are fundamentally opposed to any and all restrictions on vaping and want to flaunt their new found freedom at every opportunity. If this means blowing vast clouds of vapour in a pub restaurant next to other diners they will do it. But would anyone, let alone a non smoker, really want to eat their chicken supper sitting next to this?
OK, that one is probably a little extreme. But if, as a restaurateur, you allow vaping, you are also allowing people to do that – unless you can think of some way to put restrictions on cloud size and density. Additionally, it is not practical to put a restriction on the number of vapers you have in at any one time, so even if they are all vaping ‘normally’, with a large number present things can still get pretty foggy as anyone who has been to a vape meet will know. We cannot expect the public to simply be happy to be told that the fog is benign, especially in light of the adverse propaganda spread through the media on what seems to be a daily basis. We also cannot expect proprietors and employers to fly in the face of the opinions of the non smoking, ‘clean air’ loving majority – but it should be their choice.
Vaping is relatively new and the etiquette is still developing. Most people I know are considerate and discreet when appropriate, but it only takes one obnoxious ‘its-legal-and-I’ll-do-what-i-like’ cloud blower to spoil the party for all of us in any given establishment. So we need to develop the etiquette ourselves, before public (and business) support results in further statutory bans of the sort now proposed in Wales, with Scotland watching intently. You can be sure that if bans are brought in the excuse will be “we don’t know what’s in them”, but the real reason will be “we just don’t like them”.
So vapers, what do you think? Is it better to be loud and proud, or is discretion sometimes the better part of valour?