E-cigs: A hell of a lot better than cancer

The idea that young people are turning to e-cigs as a precursor to getting hooked on cigarettes seems to me to be nonsense

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I quit smoking five years ago. Having tried to give up countless times (including two sessions with Paul McKenna), I found a highly effective way of finally, unequivocally, kicking the habit. I got cancer. Yes, it was a little bit dramatic but it certainly worked. I haven't touched a cigarette since, and I can't say that I've missed it. Occasionally, I get a pang of longing, usually when I see a good-looking person smoking and I think, for that fleeting moment, that, yes, it really does make you look stylish.

Of course, it pays to advertise, and the scene that is played out at the end of each episode of House of Cards is the most powerfully auto-suggestive imagery that the tobacco industry could hope for. The characters played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, Washington power brokers both, sit by an open window at the end of the day and share confidences. More importantly, they also share a cigarette, and the viewer is left with the subliminal message that this is what brings them together, encourages their joint sense of relaxation and closeness, and sets the context for a rather touching, personal moment. At least, that's what I take away from it.

Would this vignette be as persuasive were they smoking e-cigarettes? I very much doubt it. Have I ever had that pang of desire when I see someone "vaping"? Certainly not. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it's the sense of danger that gives cigarettes much of their appeal, which is why the ever more dramatic health warnings just don't cut it with hardened smokers. E-cigarettes, which contain nicotine but not tobacco, just don't deliver the same illicit thrill.

This is why I find the moral panic attaching itself to e-cigarettes rather puzzling. I know it will be some years before it will be clear whether e-cigs have health risks themselves, but, even before the scientific evidence is available, I don't believe anyone will argue against the contention that they are better for you than a pack of red Marlboros. From 2016, e-cigs will be licensed and regulated as an aid to stop smoking, but the concern now is that they act as precisely the opposite, and young people are turning to e-cigs (or what they call "pens") as a precursor to getting hooked on cigarettes. This seems to me to be nonsense. History has shown that if kids wanted to smoke, they'd smoke, and if they are now choosing a safer alternative, we shouldn't be upset by that. (The blatant marketing to youngsters, however, of sweet-flavoured e-cigs - you can get them tasting of vanilla fudge or candy floss - is a step too far, and I can understand why they provoke the same reaction as alcopops.)

Two million people in Britain now use e-cigarettes, and I'd be very interested to know how many of those are new entrants into the world of smoking. Relatively few, I would suggest. E-cigarettes are attractive for those who want to leave smoking behind, or at least recognise their addiction and want to do something about it. But are they attractive to the casual pleasure-seeker? I very much doubt it.

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