The public-health lobby – more dangerous than e-cigs

The campaign against e-cigarettes is not just illiberal, it's illogical.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Happy birthday, Elvis Costello, who turned 60 on Monday. So what better way to start this week’s column than to quote the singer and songwriter himself. In his 1986 song, ‘Suit of Lights’, he sings: ‘It’s the force of habit / If it moves then you fuck it, if it doesn’t move you stab it.’ This miserable outlook could be an excellent description of our modern-day public-health crusaders.

The latest manifestation of this worldview is the recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that electronic-cigarette users ‘should be legally requested not to use [e-cigs] indoors, especially where smoking is banned, until exhaled vapour is proven to be not harmful to bystanders and reasonable evidence exists that smoke-free policy enforcement is not undermined’. Such a ‘legal request’ – or ‘ban’, as most normal people would call it – rather defeats one of the main attractions of e-cigs: as a way of enjoying nicotine in places where cigarettes are prohibited. The WHO would also like consideration given to banning vending machines selling e-cigs, bans on producers making health claims about e-cigs, and severe restrictions on the promotion of e-cigs.

In a typically conspiratorial turn, the WHO would also like to smear e-cigs with the bad reputation of the tobacco industry, which has started buying up e-cig companies: the ‘industry, its allies and front-groups can never be considered to be a legitimate public-health partner or stakeholder while it continues to profit from tobacco and its products or represents the interests of the industry’. In other words, there must be something bad about e-cigs if the evil tobacco industry has got involved, right?

The WHO is not alone in fretting about e-cigs. On Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a statement claiming that children who had tried e-cigs (43.9 per cent) were more likely to be planning to try tobacco cigarettes than their non-vaping peers (21.5 per cent), the implication being that e-cigs are a ‘gateway drug’ to the hard stuff. In fact, as blogger Carl V Phillips shows, the research this claim is based on is a shocking – but sadly, typical – piece of advocacy research. Kids are defined as ‘users’ even if they’ve just had a single puff on an e-cig, the figures for those ‘intending’ to try tobacco cigarettes included those who said they probably wouldn’t, and the proportion of children who had tried an e-cig was only about one per cent of this age group.

And just to confirm that the public-health lobby really does want to kill e-cigs while it still can, the American Heart Association (AHA) also released a statement this week calling for restrictions. ‘Over the last 50 years, 20million Americans died because of tobacco. We are fiercely committed to preventing the tobacco industry from addicting another generation of smokers’, said Nancy Brown, the AHA’s CEO. ‘It’s critical that we rigorously examine the long-term impact of this new technology on public health, cardiovascular disease and stroke, and pay careful attention to the effect of e-cigarettes on adolescents’, said Aruni Bhatnagar, chair of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Louisville and author of the AHA’s statement.

Yet all these claims really are, er, smoke and mirrors. The best that these organisations, who love to tout how their recommendations are ‘evidence based’, can come up with in terms of potential harm from e-cigs is that they might ‘renormalise’ smoking and that some of the flavourings used in e-cigs might slightly increase the risk of cancer. But summing up the evidence, even the WHO admits that e-cig vapour ‘usually contains some carcinogenic compounds and other toxicants found in tobacco smoke at average levels of one to two orders of magnitude lower than in tobacco smoke’. Even this is a just-about-accurate but mealy-mouthed form of words; most people who have looked into the matter seriously and with an open mind put the risks of e-cigs as 95-99 per cent lower than for tobacco cigarettes.

The effectiveness of e-cigs as an aid to quitting tobacco smoking is indicated by a report last week from the UK Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which provides official stats on healthcare. According to HSCIC, ‘the number of people that set a quit date through the NHS Stop Smoking Services in 2013/14 has declined by 19 per cent since 2012/13’. Why are people not bothering with official smoking-cessation services? Because they’ve found a better and more reliable alternative: e-cigs.

What the debate about e-cigs really shows is that the drive to prohibition has little to do with evidence of harm. Instead, there is an impulse to clamp down on any activity deemed to be undesirable. The desire to control, to impose a puritanical outlook on all of us, comes first. The fact that, in certain situations, there is evidence of actual harm from a particular activity is obviously a powerful argument for not doing it, which has provided excellent camouflage for the little Hitlers in the public-health lobby. However, when these zealots try to ban something for which there is no evidence of harm, it makes it abundantly clear what their true motivations are.

Such busybodies have been around forever. What has changed in recent years is that they have now, through a policy of entryism into the corridors of power, won the ear of politicians desperate for a sense of purpose and who often have similar busybody tendencies. For these policy wonks, activists and politicians, the notion that we mere mortals might exercise a little autonomy in deciding what we drink, eat and smoke (or vape) is simply anathema to them.

And when it comes to e-cigarettes, the health lobby can no longer hide behind the ‘evidence’. Indeed, the evidence is very much against them. If e-cigs are restricted or even banned, millions of people will carry on smoking and many of them will die. The ‘public health’ movement is a sick joke that will cost lives as well as freedom.

Rob Lyons is a columnist for spiked.

Picture by: PA

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Topics Politics


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