Anti-tobacco campaigners: what a bunch of Cnuts

The controversy over TV advertising for e-cigs shows that tobacco-control activists are more interested in lifestyle regulation than health.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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‘Smoking is back’, seems to be the consensus on a new advertising campaign for e-cigarettes from a subsidiary of tobacco giant, BAT. The handwringing around the commercials only shows that anti-tobacco campaigners are not simply interested in banning the evil weed – they want to obliterate the very idea of smoking.

The new advert itself is pretty innocuous. A young man and a young woman run down busy night-time streets to a soundtrack of banal rock-pop before leaping in slow motion into a cloud of vapour. Then, the voiceover tell us: ‘Pure satisfaction for smokers. Vype e-cigarettes: Experience the Breakthrough.’ In fact, the ad is not so much innocuous as downright naff. It is clearly the product of a company desperately tip-toeing through the ambiguities of current advertising regulations, which were created long before e-cigs turned the world of nicotine – and tobacco control – upside down. But the fact that BAT is behind them is freaking out conspiratorial tobacco haters.

The new UK advert for Vype

The Vype adverts are not even the first to feature e-cigs in the UK. E-Lites has been running commercials for over a year, featuring actor Mark Benton, with a tagline – ‘You don’t know what you’re missing’ – that not only suggests that e-cigs are worth trying but will enhance the lives of smokers perennially sent outside to have a fag. (The ad in question is also considerably more entertaining than Vype’s.)

UK commercial for E-Lites

But neither of these offerings is as upfront as the US commercials for another e-cig brand, Blu, featuring actor Stephen Dorff. It’s a machine-gun rapid argument for switching from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigs delivered by a handsome Hollywood star.

‘Negative 1: I’m tired of being a walking ashtray. Negative 2: I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I want to light up. I’m Stephen Dorff. I’ve been a smoker for 20 years – and I just found the smarter alternative: Blu e-cigs. Blu lets me enjoy smoking without it affecting the people around me, because it’s vapour, not tobacco smoke. That means no ash – and best of all, no offensive odour. With Blu, you can smoke at a basketball game if you want to. And how about not having to go outside every 10 minutes when you’re at a bar with your friends? The point is you can smoke Blu virtually anywhere. We’re all adults here. It’s time we take our freedom back. Come on guys: rise from the ashes.’

The US advert for Blu

For the tobacco-control lobby, an advert like Dorff’s is an absolute nightmare. It makes no health claims. It is clearly targeted at adults. It plays to the fact that even smokers dislike aspects of old-fashioned cigarettes, and are happy to compromise in order to get most of the pleasure of smoking without the hassle or the irritation to others. And then – God forbid – it even plays to the annoyance of smokers at the health fanatics. The last thing smoke dodgers want is for anyone to be able to take their freedom back. Even the existence of the sanitised offer from Vype’s say-nothing advert is anathema.

This was made abundantly clear in a report published by Cancer Research UK last year, The marketing of electronic cigarettes in the UK. The authors are forced to admit that e-cigs ‘are accepted as being much safer than their conventional equivalents, so if smokers can be encouraged to switch there is the potential for significant public health gain’.

However, this message is quickly lost in a cloud of public-health cant. The threats, say the authors, include concerns that ‘hard-won tobacco-control policies (smokefree public places, the ad ban, age restricted sales, tobacco industry denormalisation, POS [point-of-sale] restrictions) are being undermined’ and that ‘there is evidence that young people, who have always been the key to the long-term viability of the tobacco industry, may be being pulled into the market’. The danger, say the authors, is that tobacco companies don’t want you to give up your addiction, just switch to a different delivery system. The problem with this argument is that the new delivery system is much, much safer. Why shouldn’t corporations try to sell us safe products?

Campaigners are afraid that e-cigs – being, you know, far less harmful – will become ubiquitous in the way that tobacco cigarettes were 50 years ago. One thing that anti-smoking campaigners are never afraid of, however, is demanding that we ‘think of the children’ – in this case, through the old ‘gateway drug’ argument. If the kids see people doing something that looks like smoking, so it goes, they will inevitably try e-cigs for themselves and eventually fall into the clutches of tobacco addiction. Thus, e-cigs need to be as vigorously controlled as tobacco, because one will inevitably lead to another. As I’ve noted before on spiked, as a public-health strategy, crushing e-cigs under the weight of restriction and regulation makes as much sense as bolting shut firedoors in case someone wants to break in to the burning building.

In reality, what the anti-tobacco lobbyists (and their fans in Westminster and Whitehall) are really afraid of is the loss of their power and influence over our lives. They fear they will be helpless against the tide of e-cigs, like a great bunch of puritanical Cnuts. (Note to sub-editor: that’s definitely ‘Cnuts’, as in the Danish king who famously – probably apocryphally – tried to turn back the sea. Honest.)

E-cigs are a safe, practical alternative to smoking. For all the huffing and putting-a-stop-to-puffing, tobacco control has been an illiberal failure. E-cigs are encouraging smokers to switch, cut down or stop altogether far more successfully than all the bans, taxes, restrictions and useless nicotine-replacement therapies that have gone before. ‘Vaping’ is an unexpected but nonetheless happy success story.

In the face of this success, ban-happy campaigners have only one response: more restrictions and more bans, except this time in relation to e-cig advertising. In this respect, the debate around the adverts is as much a matter of free speech as it is about health and lifestyle freedom. The message is that companies should not be allowed to advertise legal, safe products, and viewers should not be allowed to make up their own minds about whether to try these products or not. Not only is this line from the tobacco-control mob a danger to health – it’s an insult to our intelligence, too.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

Picture: PA

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Topics Politics


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