This month is ‘Stoptober’, the annual government-backed campaign to persuade smokers to give up tobacco for good. This year, for the first time, the organisers have taken the decision to endorse vaping as an effective tool to help smoking addicts quit.
The move represents something of a volte face by the government, given that it has previously been decidedly lukewarm on e-cigarettes. Earlier this year it placed strict limitations on vaping fluid as part of its Tobacco Products Directive, which prompted criticism that legal vaping could be stifled, and a black market in stronger vaping fluids encouraged.
Opponents of vaping argue that it, too, is dangerous for consumers, pointing out that the substances inhaled are far from harmless, and raising fears that large tobacco companies will look to invest in and profit from e-cigarettes.
Both points may be true. The decision to embrace vaping as a means of weaning smokers off more damaging cigarettes, however, must be seen as a positive. It is certainly a progressive step by a government that has often resorted to more draconian measures to get people stub out their fags.
In order to ‘de-normalise’ and eventually eradicate smoking, tobacco legislation in the UK has become some of the most severe in Europe. The smoking ban of 2007 led the way, followed by a series of anti-smoking ad campaigns, tax hikes, and earlier this year, mandatory standardised packaging, complete with graphic health warnings on cartons.
What Britain has to show for this, according to the Office of National Statistics, are some of the lowest smoking rates in Europe, with just over 15 per cent of the population smoking in 2016. Among young adults, meanwhile, 19 per cent are smokers, down from 26 per cent in 2010.
This isn’t the whole story, however. The approach of those championing these changes, especially at Public Health England, are often decried as authoritarian. The effectiveness of some of the moves has been questioned, whilst plenty view the strong-arm tactics used against tobacco as just the beginning, fearing legislation against alcohol and sugar will follow.
In that time the popularity of vaping has increased significantly, with 2.9 million now regularly using e-cigarettes in the UK. The appeal isn’t easy to put your finger on; it could be the wide choice of flavours vaping offers, or perhaps the allure of new technology. But what is clear is that vaping has one serious benefit: it is nowhere near as harmful as smoking
The UK’s deputy Chief Medical Officer, Gina Radford, has even gone on record to acknowledge as much, stating that vaping is ’95 per cent’ less harmful than smoking. Of the 5 per cent of the population who vape, a quarter are former smokers, and over half don’t smoke at all, according to Action on Tobacco and Health (ASH). Moreover, 65 per cent of smokers who become daily e-cigarette users make a concerted effort to quit smoking within a year, compared to 40 per cent who tried to quit without them, according to the latest findings in the British Medical Journal.
These statistics should provide all the incentive governments need to embrace vaping as a way of convincing people to quit. Obviously, it is easier for somebody addicted to a substance to be weaned off it than to attempt abstinence, and that is exactly what vaping provides; a safer, healthier means of accessing nicotine than cigarettes, allowing people to forgo the unpleasant experience of going ‘cold turkey’.
It’s also more market-friendly. Rather than banning, bullying and censoring to make people healthier, vaping represents a response by the market to the growing need to replace cigarettes for the sake of the population. It promotes choice, rather than restricting it.
It is rare that government campaigns merit praise for trying to persuade their citizens to change their approaches or habits; they tend to be patronising, and take no account of the wishes of the people they ostensibly try to help. But this time, for once, the Nanny State may have got it right.