E-cigarettes: the politics of vaping

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Good news Nicotine

Mellows: "Smokers will talk about needing to use their hands in social situations"
Mellows: "Smokers will talk about needing to use their hands in social situations"
For some time now I’ve been stalking the subject of e-cigarettes, writes Phil Mellows. Vaping, as they call it, since users inhale nicotine-laced vapour rather than smoke, may not be drinking but it does offer an intriguing insight into society’s attitude towards psycohactive substances and addiction.

And, of course, e-cigs are an important issue for pubs. While some have banned them, for reasons ranging from the confusion incited in barstaff to the nicotine stains on the ceiling (nicotine is colourless – it’s the tar what done that), others have warmly welcomed the phenomenon and numbers of vapers in pubs are noticeably on the increase.

This is good news for community pubs that continue to miss trade from smokers, it’s good news for non-smokers like me who are periodically abandoned by their smoking mates when they go outside for a drag, and it’s good news for smokers since they now have, potentially or actually, a really effective harm reduction tool.

The latest briefing from Action on Smoking and Health​ (ASH) estimates there are now 1.3million vapers in the UK. Only a couple a months ago, when I wrote about the subject, there were fewer than a million.

Emotional bonding
ASH can find little to object to in e-cigs. Of course, more research into the effects of e-cigs is needed, but we know that nicotine itself is a relatively benign drug (it’s the tar, again, what does the damage).

But surely nicotine is fantastically addictive? Well, that’s what everyone says. And the urgency and frequency with which my mates leave the pub table to go outside would support that. (At least I hope it’s not my conversation.)

I’ve seen some research on rats that suggests other ingredients in tobacco may be significant in the addictive effect, but unless it’s Rat Park​ I don’t take research on rats too seriously, so I better be consistent.

I don’t think, though, that addiction​ comes from the substance alone. Something else is going on. Smokers will talk about needing to use their hands in social situations, for instance, and the notion of emotional bonding has legs, I reckon.

Anyway, I’m not going there. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that nicotine is addictive. Does that matter if it’s not going to do you any, or little, or less, harm?

It’s hard for society to accept that addiction can itself be benign, certainly when it comes to psychoactive substances that challenge the supposed integrity of our self-identity and undermine our capacity for rational behaviour.

Certain addictions are nevertheless accepted. As smoking used to be – it used to be called, euphemistically, a ‘habit’. And many people casually talk of ‘needing’ a coffee, a clear case of caffeine addiction.

So e-cigs, potentially a ‘clean’ method of psychoactive substance delivery, asks a difficult question of the state.

Gateway drug
The government’s announcement​ that it will regulate electronic cigarettes as medicines, as an official form of nicotine replacement therapy, has triggered much debate. Because the state is playing catch-up, in a similar way that it’s trying to get a hold on the plethora of new drugs that have appeared on the streets, e-cigs have not been properly tested for safety, nor for their effectiveness in stopping people smoking.

There is also a worry that they could act as a gateway drug, encouraging children to smoke tobacco by offering nicotine in sweet flavours (you can flavour the vapour any way you choose). It’s alcopops all over again.

Another concern is that they might actually sustain tobacco smoking by enabling people to vape where smoking is disallowed, such as in a pub.

Will Haydock has made the point​ that by imitating tobacco cigarettes in look and feel, some e-cig manufacturers are inviting these dangers.

But it seems to me that this gate swings both ways. I was talking to a vaping friend of mine last night who has switched from an imitation tobacco cigarette model to a bizarre-looking space-age contraption. He did so, he explained, because the first kind weren’t giving him the full nicotine satisfaction, and he found himself smoking tobacco at weekends. He thinks the new style might mean he gives up for good. The fact that it dosen’t look like a ‘proper’ cigarette didn’t matter.

It could be that electronic cigarettes and vaping are already developing their own distinct drug culture identity​, diverging from the dangers of tobacco.

I hope so. And while I agree that e-cigs should be regulated and quality standards enforced by the state – after all, people are putting these things in their mouths - we must be careful to ensure that we don’t restrict access too much, nor deter smokers who want to give up from adopting a device that might very well extend their lives.

And the way they’re going, by the time the legislation comes in, in 2016, e-cigarettes will have become quite deeply embedded in everyday life. It will be interesting to see what happens when the smoke clears.

Related topics Legislation

Related news

Show more