Debating the safety and effectiveness of electronic cigarettes is not a debate confined just to the UK. In the USA, the number of cities banning the use of e-cigarettes, also known as vaping, in public places, such as bars, nightclubs and restaurants, and therefore treating them similarly to traditional cigarettes, is growing. Boston, Chicago and New York are among them, and Los Angeles is destined to join the list soon; the LA City Council has already voted to ban them, so passing the measure into law is just a matter of process.
In the UK, the stance on use in public places is still very much subjective. Pub chains Wetherspoons and the Slug & Lettuce have banned the use of them insider their establishments; McDonald’s too. Some train operators, including First Capital Connect, have imposed a complete ban on passengers using the devices.
In February, however, Boots announced their stores would be stocking e-cigarettes, making the brand, Puritane, available online as well as giving the product a presence in the high street. Under-18s are banned from buying electronic cigarettes though – and the UK government has also made it illegal for adults to buy traditional cigarettes for anyone under 18.
Depending on who you talk or listen to, e-cigarettes either offer the best hope yet of significantly reducing harmful smoking, or are a new way for tobacco companies to regain some control in the falling tobacco market. Though whether it actually matters if consumers are spending their money on a less harmful product instead, is another argument.
Critics also raise the concern that e-cigarettes can serve as a gateway for young adults and teens to experience a form of smoking before graduating to the real thing. The counter to that, surely, is that if habits are hardened in those early and impressionable years, the user may never be tempted to try old-style cigarettes.
In brief, e-cigarettes consist of a battery, a cartridge filled with nicotine, a solution of propylene glycol or glycerine mixed with water, and an atomiser to turn the solution into a vapour. When the user inhales, the solution is vaporised – hence the term vaping – and a nicotine hit to the lungs is delivered without tar and toxins. And this, insist e-cigarette users and supporters, is what makes the crucial difference and distinction between those and traditional cigarettes.
Author Matt Ridley, who appeared on News Night, is a well-known supporter of electronic cigarettes, having spoken about the subject in the House of Lords and written extensively on the subject. Ridley likens e-cigs to a product widely popular in Sweden. Snus, which is put under the top lip, provides the nicotine but not the tar. Sweden has the fewest smokers per head of population of all EU countries; lung cancer mortality in Swedish males over the age of 35 is less than half the British rate. “If snus can halve smoking and lung-cancer deaths, imagine what electronic cigarettes could do,” Ridley wrote. “These are objects that mimic the actions of smoking but are maybe 1,000 times safer.”
Speaking on Tonight, Professor Robert West from Cancer Research UK, suggested that e-cigarettes could potentially save millions of lives a year. Glenn Thomas, of the World Health Organisation, insisted that more research is required to establish what, if any, impact on health e-cigarettes has.
A poll conducted after an ITV debate in January illustrated a public divided: on the question of whether e-cigarettes set a bad example, showing people imitating smoking even in smoke free areas, there was an even split of 42 per cent each. Asked whether it was socially acceptable to regularly use an e-cigarette in public, 48 pre cent agreed it was; 33 per cent did not and 19 per cent were unsure. However, 45 per cent disagreed that e-cigarettes should be allowed in public, indoor places.
The benefits of electronic cigarettes may evoke debate, but the popularity of such devices cannot be disputed. The rise of the e-cigarette has been verging on the meteoric – in 2013, sales rose 340 per cent year on year, beating nicotine patches, lozenges and gum for the first time. While e-cigarettes are not necessarily pitched as aids to help smokers quit traditional tobacco, it’s clear they are being used as an alternative – sales totalled £193 million last year (up from £44 million in 2012). In comparison, collective sales of patches, lozenges and gum were £131 million, an increase of just 1.7 per cent.
In France, a country almost synonymous with the image of traditional cigarette smokers, e-cigarettes are hugely popular. A survey carried out by Ipsos in December 2013 revealed one in five French people – that is around 10 million – had tried an e-cigarette. At the same time, sales of traditional cigarettes dropped by just over 7 per cent in France.
There are estimated to be around 1.3 million e-cigarette users in the UK, and as the popularity of the devices grow, that figure is only going to increase. There is an extensive range of brands and styles, ranging from models which look very alike to real cigarettes in appearance, to those that resemble pens. Disposable, rechargeable and personal vaporizer versions are all readily available, as are e-juices to flavour the vapour. Conventional menthol flavours sit alongside apple, pineapple, kiwi and even bubblegum for the more adventurous e-pioneer.
Celebrity endorsement from rapper Snoop Dogg (now known as Snoop Lion), who has designed a vaporiser pen with a roadmap of Long Beach printed on it, and Leonardo DiCaprio have helped to cement the device’s status as a viable smoking alternative, rather than an awkward stopgap to quitting. A variety of novelty versions in the guise of lightsabres and Nintendo NES controllers, seem to promote them as a form of fashionable, ironic accessory.
Should the Welsh government succeed in banning e-cigarettes from public places, those forced to go outside may well go back to smoking the real deal. It’s difficult to see how an enforced ban may affect the e-cig industry, but it’s unlikely to go up in a puff of smoke any time soon.