|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Sunday, October 04, 2020
--- Lady at bus stop, a few months ago.
You might think it bad taste to talk about vaping in the middle of a pandemic, and you'd be right. But this hasn't stopped a slew of public health bodies, politicians, and activists from doing just that, so I see no reason to unilaterally disarm.
If you want some proper science and good sense on the topic, follow Clive Bates on Twitter, and read his excellent blog. Meanwhile, here's my own overdue rant.
I've been meaning to blog about vaping for a while. My Twitter feed sometimes seems to be about little else, rather to my embarrassment whenever I scroll through it. So I'll start by explaining why it matters to me. As with many vapers, my story begins with smoking.
To cut that long story short: I smoked, first a pipe then cigarettes, from my early twenties to my late fifties. I tried to quit many times. The annual ratchet of tax rises in the Budget reliably brought on another attempt. Surely I'll stop, I told myself, when they're over 50p a pack! Not even the £10 pack did the trick. Neither did Allen Carr's book, willpower, shame, and the pub smoking ban. One day about ten years ago I saw an electronic cigarette in a petrol station, and bought it. It was shaped like a cigarette and had a tip that glowed when you drew on it. After buying a few of these and finding it inconvenient when they ran down I soon was ordering the same brand with rechargeable batteries and replaceable cartridges. I was still smoking, but a bit less than before, and the ecig made pub conversations much more convivial and less often interrupted than they'd become. The kick was feeble, the nicotine faint, the taste indifferent, but it was better than nothing.
Then a student in a mid-morning break at Napier showed me a more advanced e-cig, with a refillable tank, and told me where to get them. That very lunchtime I hastened over the hill to Emporium Vapour at Gorgie Road, and bought a starter kit. Within weeks, and without trying, I'd gone from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day to a pack a month. I went from tobacco flavours to fruit, menthol, spearmint... eventually settling on Kiwi and Strawberry, a half dozen tiny bottles of which I've just ordered. I smoked what turned out to be my last cigarette in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2016. Vaping had succeeded where decades of New Year resolutions had failed.
In the meantime, I'd been through the battle over the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, which saw concerted efforts to ban or severely restrict vaping and frantic, largely self-funded efforts by vapers to save it. We all learned a lesson in how EU laws are made. The vaunted principles of transparency, evidence, proportionality and subsidiarity didn't, let's say, stand out. The outcome was some pointless, petty and harmful regulation that wasn't as bad as we'd feared – and thousands more people in Britain who hated the EU and were active, informed and outspoken about it on social media. I'm not saying it swung the referendum, but it can't have helped.
The real threat to vaping, however, came from the United States. As long as vaping was a hipster fad, it could be fought by ridicule and junk science, of which there was plenty. The typical experiment involved burning out ecig coils and forcing mice to breathe the resulting toxic smoke for a month. The results of the mouse autopsies could then be turned into excited press releases and even more excitable headlines.
Another line of attack was that the vaping industry – or, absurdly, the tobacco industry – was 'targeting kids'. In US usage, 'kids' can mean anything from toddlers to graduates, but let's be generous and assume it meant in this case teenagers. The massed ranks of mom and pop businesses and evangelical ex-smoker start-ups that made up Big Vape in those days were allegedly targeting teenagers with 'kid-friendly' flavours: sweet and fruit flavours, sometimes with names reminiscent of the kind of candies actual kids like. 'Gummy bears' was a common talking point. The slogan, repeated to this day, was 'Flavours hook kids'. The claim makes sense until you give it a moment's thought.
When you do give it a moment's thought, you recall that teenagers are anxious to put away childish things, to take on the trappings of adulthood as quickly they can, and to defy the conventions and pieties of the adult world as annoyingly as they can. This is, of course, one reason why they smoke cigarettes. If you wanted to appeal to teenagers, your ideal vape flavour branding would be redolent of tobacco harvested by slaves, shipped by pirates, imported by smugglers and smoked by highwaymen.
The real 'target' (i.e. market) for fruit and sweet flavoured vapes was people like me: adult smokers and ex-smokers and would-be ex-smokers. Smokers who take up vaping usually start with imitations of their familiar tobacco flavours, but fairly soon (perhaps because the imitations are not all that convincing – copying tobacco flavour has turned out to be surprisingly difficult) move on to sweet and fruit flavours. If these flavours are presented as having the generic tastes of sweets they enjoyed in childhood (and may not have tasted since, for the sake of their teeth or their waistlines) all the better -- it adds a touch of harmless nostalgia.
And that market – unlike the pocket-money, illegal market of high-school students – is huge. But open-tank vaping doesn't appeal to all of them. If only there was a product as convenient as cigarettes! A start-up company set out to design just that, and succeeded. Juul is a slim device with a USB-cable rechargeable battery and replaceable cartridges of liquid. It gives the same instant nicotine kick as a cigarette. So I'm told – thanks the above-mentioned petty EU regulations, the high-nicotine pods aren't available here.
The trouble with Juul was that these devices really did appeal to teenagers, mainly if not wholly the very teenagers who would otherwise have been (or indeed already were) smoking cigarettes. Juul and similar devices are easy to conceal, almost undetectable in discreet use, and leave no tell-tale smell. This duly set off a moral panic – at the same time as the prevalence of actual cigarette smoking among teenagers dropped to a historic low. The 'Flavours hook kids' nonsense has driven ban after ban on flavoured vaping liquids. This was (and is) bad enough.
Then came disaster.
Cannabis use is illegal in the US at a federal level, but in the past decade some states have legalised it: first for medicinal use, then recreationally. The possibility of vaping cannabis didn't escape attention, and was soon realised. Legal weed stores sell an eye-watering variety of vape pens and cartridges, as well as cannabis cakes, candies and for all I know actual leaf. Because it's legal in some places but not in others an illegal market soon sprang up. Some of the criminal entrepreneurs supplying it found that they could cut cannabis-based oils with thickening agents, one of them Vitamin E acetate. This turned out to be deadly. More and more people were rushed to hospital, and scores have died, with severe lung injuries. The source of the problem was soon exposed by the legal cannabis industry. It was obscured at first because the victims had often been vaping cannabis illegally (because of their age or location) and admitted only to 'vaping' or even, more alarmingly, to 'juuling'. Blood tests, however, soon showed what they'd been vaping. It wasn't nicotine.
The lie ran around the world before the truth got its boots on. Certain US public health authorities, notably the Centers for Disease Control, did their utmost to warn against 'vaping' and 'e-cigarette use' in general and almost nothing to warn against vaping illegal cannabis in particular. The misconception, to put it no more strongly, persists and is reinforced by various public health authorities, lazy journalists, and anti-vaping activists to this day.
That's why the little old lady at the bus stop kindly advised me to go back to smoking.