Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

Why the World Health Organisation’s fears about e-cigarettes are based on prejudice, not science

This is an extract from this week’s Spectator, available from Thursday. To subscribe, click here.

I was waiting on an office forecourt recently puffing on an e-cigarette when a security guard came out.

‘You can’t smoke here,’ he shouted.

‘I’m not, actually,’ I replied.

He went to consult his superior. A few minutes later he reappeared.

‘You can’t use e-cigarettes here either.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you are projecting the image of smoking.’

‘What, insouciance?’

‘Go away.’

I did.

This phrase ‘projecting the image of smoking’ — along with ‘renormalisation’, ‘gateway effect’ and the usual ‘think of the children’ — appears frequently in arguments for restricting the use of e-cigs in public places.
While new evidence may yet emerge to support restrictions, these reasons don’t convince me. Like the security guard’s response, they look like a desperate attempt to reverse-engineer a logical argument to suit an emotional predisposition.

As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, most moralising works this way. We react instinctively, and then hastily cast about for rationalisations. For instance, most Britons feel it is repulsive to eat dogs or even horses. If you ask why, they will contrive a whole series of fatuous arguments to defend what is really an emotional belief.

In the same way, people with a distaste for vaping eagerly seize on arguments like the gateway effect. This is the idea that non-smokers will take up e-cigarettes, and so migrate to real cigarettes. The gateway effect makes sense, too. Or it would, were it not that the evidence for it is somewhere between negligible and nonexistent. The traffic seems to flow entirely in the opposite direction — from smoking to vaping to (in many cases) quitting altogether.

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