Up in smoke: Can e-cigarettes really help you kick the habit?

As the Government considers allowing e-cigarettes to become prescribed on the NHS, expert smoker turned quitter, Sam Masters, tries them out

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The Independent Online

Nigel, you don’t know what you’ve done.

It was after watching you, ciggie and pint in hand, that I did the thing I least wanted to do in the world and gave up smoking. All those hours spent in copses, bird sanctuaries and bus shelters puffing away as a teenager, honing my technique, practising taking a draw like John Travolta, were wasted. And Nigel Farage, it is your fault – your teeth and leathery skin were too much. Smoking had never looked less cool than it did when you did it.

And so it was time to quit, for good this time. Perhaps easier said than done, twice before I have given up giving up after a year off the tabs. Both relapses came after running the London marathon, when the offer of a gasper at the finish line proved irresistible. Subsequent minor attempts to quit have seen my natural inclination to be unpleasant amplified to the point where my family and friends turned enablers and bought me tobacco.

So like some 1.3million other Britons I turned to the e-cigarette. It was no small move because I was the Professor Emeritus of Smoking. From my first pack - unfiltered Gitanes stolen from a friend’s dad – to my last staple of American Spirit tobacco, smoking was the one arena in which I excelled.

I could roll, light and smoke a cigarette with as much skill and dexterity as Lionel Messi displays kicking a ball, like an orchestra conductor with a smelly baton.

But this week, in an attempt scientific research, a purchase is made of the most expensive e-ciggies possible. They’re called nicolites: “No tar - No tobacco - Real smoking satisfaction.” Soon they will either regulated as medicines – and could prescribed by GPs – or banned as Government regulations become stricter by 2016.

Sadly, my first choice shop Boots do not sell them. A lovely woman behind the counter offers a plethora of give-up tools including nicotine patches and gum (and even a course where I could have an AA–style “sponsor”) but crucially not what is required. “We don’t do them yet, dear,” she says. “Good luck mind.”

A spokeswoman for Boots later issues the following statement: “Whilst we do not currently stock electronic cigarettes we will carefully assess their benefits in the future as a potential element of our offer.”

So it’s to Superdrug, Boots’s gutter snipe cousin next to a Poundland in a soul crushing west London shopping centre. After what felt like three days wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles searching for the non-smoking, smoking section, it is finally time to ask for help. The bloke behind the counter – shifty and slightly sweaty  - points to the e-cigarettes next to the chocolate bars and chewing gum. “Not sure you really want those,” he says. “You’d be better off with the gum.”

But I do want them and force a fiver into his palm. “You 21?” he asks (I am exactly a decade beyond that and look it). So in addition to the inconvenience of going to Superdrug, which because I’m a snob I already don’t like, it turns out you have to look as old as Norman Lamont to buy them. Maybe that’s part of the point: Half the fun of smoking when I was younger was the adrenaline rush of wondering whether I could look old enough to “get served”. So I give them a try.

These look like the kind of substitute fags William Shatner might puff on the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise. They even come with a memory stick, though it is difficult to understand what this is used for. Perhaps to download smoking data which could then be obtained under some PRISM style spy network.

Actually, after consultation with technically-minded people it turns out the memory stick is much more banal and equally alien. It allows the lithium-Ion battery (the long white section) within the fag to be recharged. But that’s all the housework required, which is where the problems start for the e-ciggy.

Smokers like the ritual of smoking. Those, like me, that rolled their own tabs, took as much pleasure from the anticipation as the action. But the e-cigarette is cold and inert. And it’s yet another thing that requires batteries which I find deeply irritating to have to accept.

But I persevere, and start puffing the e-cigarette which vapourises liquid nicotine in users’ mouths. When breathed out a “satisfying” plume of water vapour is emitted. One e-ciggy is around the equivalent of 40 real cigarettes, the product makers boast. 

There is a spot outside the offices of the Independent, just off High Street Kensington, where smokers from all the newspapers gather. It’s like a herd of twitching antelope dressed at Debenhams.

I try joining in as usual with the e-cigarette but within seconds feel an outsider. No longer am I living dangerously, on the edge of society like James Dean. Now, while everyone else is packing live ammunition, I have blanks.

And rightly so.  Smoking is supposed to be cool – never more so than Sean Connery in Dr No – but there are just so many things about the e-cigarette which are not cool.

Perhaps chief among these is the ridiculous red light at the end which glows every time you take a puff. This is frankly embarrassing, and I’ve taken to cupping my fake tab like a schoolboy round the back of the bike sheds. Yes, you can smoke indoors and that is quite fun. Imagine the joy you’ll bring to your co-workers by blowing imitation smoke – made by vapourising liquid nicotine – through your nostrils like a dragon. But without the smell of tobacco burning, there’s really little point.

So, in short you’ll be slightly richer and, according to e-cigarette manufacturers, healthier. And you probably won’t look like Nigel Farage.

But does it take away the misery of giving up? No. In fact it may even prolong it as effectively you are replacing one addiction for another. 

But I’m not back on the fags – yet. Frankly, I’m waiting for the e-pipe.