Welsh e-cigs ban: liberty goes up in vapour

Government proposals to curb e-cigarette usage reek of irrational illiberalism.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Politics

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The authorities’ war on e-cigarettes escalated this week following the launch of a raft of public-health proposals for Wales. Even among the Welsh government’s other killjoy measures, such as a 50p-per-unit minimum price for alcohol or the strict regulation of tattoo parlours, the proposal to ban e-cigs from indoor public places stood out.

The reasoning behind the proposed ban makes little sense, even from the perspective of the anti-smoking zealots behind the idea. The misguided ban on smoking in public places in the UK was originally brought in to save people from the grossly overstated threat of second-hand smoke. But it would be even more difficult to justify a ban on e-cigs on public-health grounds; they emit nothing but an unobjectionable vapour. Not that that’s stopped anti-smoking types from trying. So, although e-cigs do not contain the tar that makes tobacco products bad for you, and the available evidence suggests that e-cigs are pretty much harmless, many busy bodies, including the British Medical Association, recommend either banning them completely or heavily regulating their sale, on the tenuous grounds that e-cigs are new, and we don’t know enough about their potential health risks.

Such a response from the anti-smoking lot seems counterintuitive. One might imagine they would embrace the popularity of e-cigs. After all, e-cigs have helped many people to do by themselves what decades of patronising public-health campaigns have failed to do: stop smoking. There are thought to be 10million smokers in the UK, and it has been estimated that this year the number of people using e-cigs will rise to one million. The vast majority of these people are likely to be using e-cigs as a cigarette substitute, either to help them give up or to reduce the amount they smoke. This makes it impossible to believe that the made-up risks about e-cigs are what really lies behind the urge to stamp e-cigs out.

Against this background of misinformation, it was strangely refreshing to hear the Welsh health minister, Mark Drakeford, giving what is the actual, if equally nonsensical, reason for the panic about e-cigs – and it’s got nothing to do with direct health risks from e-cigs. Drakeford said: ‘I have concerns about the impact of e-cigarettes on the enforcement of Wales’ smoking ban. That’s why we are proposing restricting their use in enclosed public places.’

Drakeford was not clear about how e-cigs would undermine the enforcement of the existing smoking ban. But it seems that it’s enough to ban something because it reminds people of another thing that has already been banned. Or as Drakeford put it: ‘I am concerned that [e-cigs’] use in enclosed public places could normalise smoking behaviour.’

As Drakeford is surely aware, smoking is already normal. Many normal people are smokers, and the demand for cigarettes is such that they are sold over the counter in normal shops. But, of course, this is not what people like Drakeford mean. Terms like ‘normalise’ and ‘denormalise’ are the jargon of choice for tobacco prohibitionists; their code for the tactic of trying to build a taboo around smoking. It’s a tactic that has been partially successful, prompting some in the anti-smoking lobby to talk confidently of an imminent ‘endgame for smoking’; in other words, all nicotine products will soon be made illegal. Although this may still seem fanciful, the call to ban anything that even resembles a cigarette should be seen in this context.

The truth is that the need of these new puritans to prevent people from doing anything they disapprove of is rarely driven by anything rational. Although the campaign against smoking may often be dressed up as a concern for the health of individuals, children or society as a whole, it is driven by the arrogant assumption that a minority knows what is best for the vast majority of other people.

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Topics Politics


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