Christopher Snowdon

Vapers deserve to be angry - they are under attack

Vapers deserve to be angry - they are under attack
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There is a perception - on Twitter at least - that vapers are angry and abusive. Ben Goldacre recently described ‘e-cigarette campaigners’ as ‘vile... obsessive, vindictive, abusive, and to an extent that is clearly dubious’. This inevitably led to a string of replies from bewildered vapers that may have confirmed his view, although the vast majority were polite.

From what I’ve seen, vapers are no more likely to be offensive than any other punter on social media, which is admittedly a low bar. After the referendum on Scottish independence and the general election, not to mention the periodic bursts of outrage for which Twitter is notorious, I have seen much worse in recent months than a few e-cigarette users complaining about junk science and needless, destructive legislation. If the people who disagree with ‘austerity’, for example, or with the opinions of Laurie Penny, expressed themselves in the same way, Twitter would be a more courteous and eloquent place.

That is not to say that vapers are not angry but, as this week's announcement of a ban on vaping in Wales shows, they have just cause. Banning vaping indoors is such a criminally stupid and negligent idea that even the prohibitionists at Action on Smoking and Health are opposed to it. The unintended consequences are utterly predictable. Once people who have switched from smoking to vaping are thrown outside, they may come to the conclusion that they might as well smoke. Meanwhile, smokers who might switch to vaping have one less incentive to do so. The negative effect on health is plain to see, even if we ignore the glaring fact that none of this is the government’s business.

Vapers have every right to be outraged by this evidence-free attack on a habit that is not only harmless to bystanders but positively beneficial to them personally as erstwhile smokers. This is the important point to remember about so-called ‘e-cigarette campaigners’. They used to be smokers. You know how some ex-smokers can seem a little self-righteous and pleased with themselves? Vapers have taken that sense of triumph and channelled it into promoting - or, at least, protecting - the product that helped them quit.

As smokers, vapers spent years being taxed, demonised and kicked into the street. Anti-smoking campaigners would never put it in such blunt terms, but their objective is to make smokers’ lives so miserable that they decide to quit smoking. Vapers did quit smoking, often to their own surprise. They did exactly what was asked of them, but instead of being embraced by their old tormentors, they found themselves with another battle to fight.

The last few years have seen an extraordinarily dishonest campaign of misinformation against e-cigarettes that is as bad as anything I have seen from the ‘public health’ lobby. There has been a concerted effort to portray e-cigarettes as a ‘gateway’ to tobacco, despite all the evidence showing that they are a gateway from tobacco. They have been accused of ‘renormalising’ smoking without a scintilla of evidence. Misleading research has led to numerous unfounded scare stories in the press. Newspaper columnists have written ridiculous articles without doing the most basic fact-checking. Senior medics have explicitly told the public that e-cigarettes are no safer than real cigarettes. At the same time, ordinary vapers who never had any intention of becoming campaigners - and, indeed, are not campaigners - have been accused of being shills for e-cigarette and/or tobacco companies for doing no more than trying to put the record straight.

The irony is that if vapers on social media were part of an ‘astro-turf’ campaign for industry, they would not speak out as bluntly as they do. The ‘public health’ lobby is quite comfortable dealing with the pitched battles that come from having a polite, professional and organised opposition. It is the public they can’t handle.

Stanton Glantz, an activist-academic at UCSF says that he receives ‘hyper-aggressive’ responses whenever he posts a blog about e-cigarettes while Martin McKee, a professor of public health, says: ‘Anyone who suggests e-cigarettes are anything short of miraculous seems to be targeted’. This is a little disingenuous. Glantz and McKee have done rather more than suggest that e-cigarettes are not miraculous. McKee wants e-cigarettes to be regulated as if they were medicines while Glantz has helped bring about the banning of not only the use, but also the possession, of e-cigarettes on his campus in San Francisco.

These are people who have the power to turn their thoughts into deeds. They do not need to attack e-cigarette users verbally, though some do. Last year, the president of the UK Faculty of Public Health was suspended after a late-night Twitter binge in which he used such colourful phrases as 'obsessive compulsive abusive onanist,' 'slave to addiction' and 'c***' to describe e-cigarette users. He was later reinstated and the UK Faculty of Public Health is loudly supporting the Welsh vaping ban in the media this week.

If vapers are frustrated, it is because they are the helpless against the powerful. Combine the sense of righteousness that comes from being an ex-smoker with the sense of injustice that comes from hearing endless lies about something that is dear to you, you have a recipe for righteous indignation. There will be a lot of it around this week, quite justifiably.