I have been, on and off, a lifelong smoker; but I gave up in January 2009 on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. It was out of feelings of solidarity with the poor man, who I assumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) would have to quit too when he took office; for Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, had ruled that there should never be any smoking in the White House. I myself remained primly smoke-free for five and a half years, but took up cigarettes again in June when I became editor of The Oldie.
Before that I had edited four other magazines, including this one, and had always had a cigarette on the go for most of the time. I think I couldn’t imagine editing anything without one. But, given the poor condition of my lungs, as well as the illegality of smoking in an office, I thought I had better try to give up again, even though Auberon Waugh used to say that smokers were generally nicer people than non-smokers. I felt that this couldn’t possibly be true any more, since so many very nice people had stopped smoking in the meantime, and it also seemed a good moment to quit because researchers were proclaiming that September was the least stressful month of the year. So it’s now been a few days since I had a puff on a cigarette.
To help me keep my new resolution, I have been furnished with several packets of e-cigarettes, those clever imitations, invented by the Chinese, that contain no tobacco and exude vapour rather than smoke, but provide you with just enough nicotine to satisfy an addict’s needs. E-cigarettes come in various shapes and forms — it is a very competitive industry — but the ones I have look and feel like real cigarettes, come in boxes that resemble real cigarette boxes, and issue satisfying clouds of smoke-like vapour. But when you suck one, the tip turns blue, rather than red, and remains disconcertingly cold. Even so, it’s a persuasive substitute for the real thing and should be warmly welcomed by the health authorities as another powerful weapon in the war against tobacco.
The opposite, however, is the case. Instead of urging people like me to ‘vape’, as the practice of puffing on e-cigarettes is now called, both the World Health Organisation and Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health are doing their best to stop us. They have to recognise, because it’s true, that e-cigarettes are infinitely less harmful than real cigarettes and have the potential to save millions of lives, but all the same they burrow away looking for dangers in them. No matter that e-cigarettes are used by people to help them give up smoking; the WHO likes to imagine that they will lead paradoxically to more people doing it. Although, as the organisation admits, there is no evidence of children being tempted to take up cigarettes after trying electronic ones, it fears that this may not always be the case.
What if e-cigarettes became viewed as ‘cool’? That might make all kinds of smoking seem cool and turn the young to tobacco as well. And the RSPH agrees. It wants the name ‘e-cigarette’ to be changed to something like ‘nicotine stick’, because, it says, ‘we want to ensure that these products don’t begin to be seen as lifestyle choices and as something that appears cool or trendy’. So e-cigarettes, although designed to protect us from smoking, must be stigmatised as smoking is, just in case they should themselves turn out to be — if clearly not remotely as harmful as tobacco — possibly a little less innocuous than they appear to be.
There is not even now any consensus about the effects of ‘passive smoking’; yet untested fears that e-cigarette vapour could contain some pollutants have already led the WHO to demand a ban on ‘vaping’ indoors. Such a ban, it says, should remain in force ‘until exhaled vapour is proven to be not harmful to bystanders and reasonable evidence exists that smoke-free policy enforcement is not undermined’. You would think that the WHO had enough real health problems to deal with without needing to protect the world against imaginary dangers that may not even exist. And in this case, by banning ‘vaping’ indoors, it would also undermine the efforts of millions of people to give up smoking with the help of e-cigarettes. It makes me so cross that I may very well give up giving up.