Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man: So it might really be true - nicotine is good for your brain

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It was a few months ago, and I had just arrived in Philadelphia. My friend picked me up at the airport — one of those charming, civilised things people do when they live in a city that’s a sensible size.

As I climbed into the car I furtively pulled an e-cigarette out of my pocket. Furtively, because my friend has never smoked, and is better qualified than most to criticise my nicotine use — what with his having been awarded the highest first in biochemistry in his year at Cambridge and being a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and all. I muttered some apologetic comment: ‘E-cigarettes… nicotine but without the carcinogens or something… about on a par with caffeine… not too bad a drug… .’

‘Are you kidding?’ He replied. ‘It’s better than that. In fact I’m not sure that nicotine shouldn’t be compulsory; it improves cognitive ability, raises IQ, boosts memory function, treats mental illness… rats when given nicotine are much better at navigating mazes… .’ He then explained something about T-cell receptors and synapses.

Eh? I wasn’t expecting that. Now, admittedly, he was talking only about the mental effects of nicotine: it is a vasoconstrictor, and may do harm elsewhere in the body. But this was the first time I had heard a scientist describe what all smokers have long suspected — that for all its flaws, nicotine is one of few drugs which at least does not make its users stupider. Instead it enables ‘a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs’, as Einstein described it. In fact you could make a case that the enlightenment only happened when Western Europe started lighting up.

When I gave up smoking 11 years ago, I missed these mental benefits (and the attendant rituals of smoking) long after the addiction had worn off. Protracted concentration became harder. Social events became unendurable. And things weren’t made easier by the fact that I really don’t enjoy any other drugs much. You can only enjoy drinking if you drink regularly, and I drive too often for that. And I am too right-wing for drugs such as ecstasy, since I instinctively dislike the idea of anything that makes you love people indiscriminately. My idea of a good drug is one that lets you sit alone in the corner cynically attributing base motives to almost all human actions, not one that makes you stand in a boggy field hugging strangers and shouting ‘Woooo!’

So about three years ago I lapsed and started occasional social smoking again. I was only saved from a spiralling return to 20-a-day by the invention of the e-cigarette. Now I learn that the EU is planning to ban them or at least to regulate them so heavily as to make their sale difficult. This seems insane. The jury is out on the full health effects, but various experts suggest that the combination of substitution and quitting behaviours made possible by e-cigs could prevent millions of early deaths. Even ASH and the Royal College of Physicians, always among the most implacable anti-smoking groups, have come out in support of the electronic alternative.

Until there is better evidence, the proposed legislation is indefensible. The more paranoid among us might suspect that European governments are terrified by the loss of tax revenue posed by those twin shifts from combustion to electrification — the e--cigarette and the electric car.

Why encourage people to quit smoking and then rashly ban a technology which helps people do just that? As a 93-year-old great-aunt complained to me 20 years ago: ‘In the first world war we were encouraged to send cigarettes to the troops. Now they’re telling us they’re bad. I wish the government would make up its mind.’

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.
Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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