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        The politics of drinking

June 27, 2013



E-cigarettes: the politics of vaping

For some time now Iíve been stalking the subject of e-cigarettes. Vaping, as they call it, since users inhale nicotine-laced vapour rather than smoke, may not be drinking but it does offer an intriguing insight into societyís attitude towards psycohactive substances and addiction.

And, of course, e-cigs are an important issue for pubs. While some have banned them, for reasons ranging from the confusion incited in barstaff to the nicotine stains on the ceiling (nicotine is colourless Ė itís the tar what done that), others have warmly welcomed the phenomenon and numbers of vapers in pubs are noticeably on the increase.

This is good news for community pubs that continue to miss trade from smokers, itís good news for non-smokers like me who are periodically abandoned by their smoking mates when they go outside for a drag, and itís good news for smokers since they now have, potentially or actually, a really effective harm reduction tool.

The latest briefing from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) estimates there are now 1.3million vapers in the UK. Only a couple a months ago, when I wrote about the subject for the Publicanís Morning Advertiser, there were fewer than a million.

ASH can find little to object to in e-cigs. Of course, more research into the effects of e-cigs is needed, but we know that nicotine itself is a relatively benign drug (itís the tar, again, what does the damage).

But surely nicotine is fantastically addictive? Well, thatís what everyone says. And the urgency and frequency with which my mates leave the pub table to go outside would support that. (At least I hope itís not my conversation.)

Iíve seen some research on rats that suggests other ingredients in tobacco may be significant in the addictive effect, but unless itís Rat Park I donít take research on rats too seriously, so I better be consistent.

I donít think, though, that addiction comes from the substance alone. Something else is going on. Smokers will talk about needing to use their hands in social situations, for instance, and the notion of emotional bonding has legs, I reckon.

Anyway, Iím not going there. Letís assume, for the sake of the argument, that nicotine is addictive. Does that matter if itís not going to do you any, or little, or less, harm?

Itís hard for society to accept that addiction can itself be benign, certainly when it comes to psychoactive substances that challenge the supposed integrity of our self-identity and undermine our capacity for rational behaviour.

Certain addictions are nevertheless accepted. As smoking used to be Ė it used to be called, euphemistically, a Ďhabití. And many people casually talk of Ďneedingí a coffee, a clear case of caffeine addiction.

So e-cigs, potentially a Ďcleaní method of psychoactive substance delivery, asks a difficult question of the state.

The governmentís announcement that it will regulate electronic cigarettes as medicines, as an official form of nicotine replacement therapy, has triggered much debate. Because the state is playing catch-up, in a similar way that itís trying to get a hold on the plethora of new drugs that have appeared on the streets, e-cigs have not been properly tested for safety, nor for their effectiveness in stopping people smoking.

There is also a worry that they could act as a gateway drug, encouraging children to smoke tobacco by offering nicotine in sweet flavours (you can flavour the vapour any way you choose). Itís alcopops all over again.

Another concern is that they might actually sustain tobacco smoking by enabling people to vape where smoking is disallowed, such as in a pub.

Will Haydock has made the point that by imitating tobacco cigarettes in look and feel, some e-cig manufacturers are inviting these dangers.

But it seems to me that this gate swings both ways. I was talking to a vaping friend of mine last night who has switched from an imitation tobacco cigarette model to a bizarre-looking space-age contraption. He did so, he explained, because the first kind werenít giving him the full nicotine satisfaction, and he found himself smoking tobacco at weekends. He thinks the new style might mean he gives up for good. The fact that it dosenít look like a Ďproperí cigarette didnít matter.

It could be that electronic cigarettes and vaping are already developing their own distinct drug culture identity, diverging from the dangers of tobacco.

I hope so. And while I agree that e-cigs should be regulated and quality standards enforced by the state Ė after all, people are putting these things in their mouths - we must be careful to ensure that we donít restrict access too much, nor deter smokers who want to give up from adopting a device that might very well extend their lives.

And the way theyíre going, by the time the legislation comes in, in 2016, e-cigarettes will have become quite deeply embedded in everyday life. It will be interesting to see what happens when the smoke clears.

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