Coffee House Spectator Health

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

26 August 2014

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?’

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‘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. According to those fun-lovin’ guys at Ash, only 0.1 per cent of e-smokers have never smoked tobacco. Only 5 per cent of children use e-cigs more than once a week — almost all current or ex-smokers.

Frankly, I was surprised how low the figures were. I would have expected at least 5 per cent of nonsmokers to give e-cigs a try. What’s going on?
A possible explanation is that smoking is not so much an addiction as a habit: that after a few years of smoking, it is the associations, actions and mannerisms we crave more than the drug itself. Hence, if you have not first been addicted to smoking conventional cigarettes, e-cigs simply don’t hit the spot — just as those of us who have never been heroin addicts tend not to be all that keen on needles.

A few years ago, a high-court judge was driving home from his golf club after five or six double gin and ­tonics. He was pulled over by the police and breathalysed. When the machine barely registered an amber light, the police let him go — at which point he drove back to the club and demanded the head barman be fired for watering down the drinks.

It has been known for years by dodgy barmen that, after one proper G&T, you can sell people tonic water in a glass lightly rinsed in gin and they won’t notice the difference. And some more regular drinkers will still experience all the effects of drunkenness, even though they have consumed almost no alcohol. However, this works only if you have spent a lot of your past life drinking real G&Ts. Among heavy drinkers, the brain doesn’t wait for the booze to kick in — it shortcuts straight to the expected level of pissedness.

A similar placebo effect may mean that ersatz smoking only works for ex-smokers. If so, the good news for the vaping industry is that one common objection can be rejected. The ‘bad’ news is that e-cigarette sales may shrink as they run out of former smokers to convert.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK

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Show comments
  • Blogger2015

    Great post, Very good information for the vaping world

  • QuietlySeething

    First things first. “Big Tobacco ” is NOT driving this. They want a slice of this just like the rest of them, and why not? Big Tobacco have “corporate responsibility ” to contend with, so at least anything THEY do will be tested to within an inch of its life in terms of not having anything TOO toxic in there.

    Is it safe? No, probably not – more dangerous than NOT vaping for sure. Is it safer than smoking tobacco? Anyone with half a brain cell would say yes.

    All this “gateway” stuff is pure BS. It’s just a way of associating Vaping with Tobacco use and is politically motivated to use as an excuse to ban it.
    Why? 1) Big Pharma stand to loose out a lucrative revenue stream on their cessation products that they KNOW don’t work.
    2) Big Brother wants to control everything in your life. Don’t let him.

    You only have to spend 5 minutes on any one of a number of Vaping forum to hear countless testimonials about how Vaping has helped people quit. Don’t believe the lies that say otherwise.

  • Jacques Strap
  • Nigel Tipple

    Six months ago I gave up smoking and took up vaping, indeed, I’m doing it right now. I haven’t had a ciggy since. (mind you, I went to bed on the first night and mysteriously woke up 2 stone heavier)
    I watched the BBC news last evening and one of those charming young mothers was interviewed about vaping. You know the type…pinched, ugly features with an air of menace that says, ‘My baby and I are the only important things in this world, so get out of my way!’
    Obviously, her view was that it should be banned immediately and all transgressors publicly flogged. What seemed odd to me was that she was sitting in a pub, with her very young baby on her knee. Obviously, she did not feel that her surroundings were in any way incongruous.
    What is it about life’s ‘banners’? They all look the same; they are dreary beyond belief, their level of self-satisfaction is off the scale and their sanctimonious behaviour leads to an overwhelming desire to offer them a one-way trip to Syria.
    I’d like to ban them all.

  • swatnan

    Absolute tosh! e-cigs encourage youngsters to take up smoking and the nicotene becomes addictive. Its as silly as legalising Marijuana, which just leads to harder drugs. Recreational drug users are a disgrace. The only substitute is to smoke cold turkey, and get off the weed altogether.

    • Jacques Strap

      Drinking beer is recreational drug use.

      • swatnan

        I think most people are intelligent enough to distinguish between a social pint of beer at the pub or a glass of red at a wine bar, and the secretive under the backroom smoking of weed, and sniffing of coke etc. Some people do have problems with self abuse with acohol, true.

        • Jacques Strap

          And I think most people are intelligent enough to distinguish between an e-cig and the secretive under the backroom smoking of weed, and sniffing of coke etc….

          Some people just like the experience of social vaping as opposed to become hooked on tobacco/nicotine. Yes it sounds weird, but not to some people. You can put lots of different things in an e-cig. They are great for clearing out a bunged up nose or soothing a sore throat for example.

          Just like menthol crystals in a heated tube. Works wonders.

          • swatnan

            I think most people know the difference between injecting yourself with heroine and injecting yourself with insulin.
            Same method of delivery.

            • Jacques Strap

              Dont be so pedantic. I think most people know the difference between injecting yourself with heroine or insulin and breathing in water vapor.

        • Kerr Mudgeon

          Some people do have problems with self abuse. My position is, if you must do it, do it at home!

    • FergusReturns

      “Its as silly as legalising Marijuana, which just leads to harder drugs.”

      Except it doesn’t, which kind of blows a huge hole in your argument.

      “Recreational drug users are a disgrace.”

      And you’re a nasty little puritan creeping Jesus.

    • João Pargana

      Actually, there are already studies showing that it is the other way around: youngsters, just like adults, are quitting smoking by using e-cigarettes:

      Anyway, I have always found this gateway theory odd. Let’s suppose for a moment that I am a youngster who has taken up vaping. Without the e-cig, maybe I had started smoking cigarettes instead. (I actually started smoking as a youngster myself, long before there were any e-cigs to “make” me take up smoking).

      Now, let’s suppose this youngster, who has been happily vaping, later decides to take up smoking. Why change from a product that is:
      1) Thought to be much more harlmless than tobacco smoke
      2) Enjoyable (since he’s using it)
      3) Much more cheaper than cigarettes (I used to spend 160 Eur/month in cigarettes. For the last five and an half years, I have been spending around 30-40 Eur/month with vaping)
      4) Easy to conceal from your parents (maybe a small cig-alike hidden in your pocket)
      5) Very convenient to use (He can lock himself in his bedroom saying “he needs to study”, and vape there. No smoke, no lingering smell…)

      To a product that is:

      1) Much more harmful
      2) Foul-tasting (After 25 years of smoking, I cannot smoke a cigarette anymore)
      3) Much more expensive
      4) Harder to conceal
      5) Above all, much more unconvenient to use. He cannot simply smoke in his room anymore. He has to hide somewhere outside, have a smoke, and then be concerned about the giveaway, lingering smoke smell in his breath and in his clothes.
      Why choose a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose option in the first place?
      If that ever happens, there’s other explanation: peer pressure from his smoking friends. But then, peer pressure has made him take up smoking, NOT the e-cigarette!
      Youngsters have taken up smoking over the years, LONG before there even was an e-cigarette to “make” them smoke!

  • saffrin

    I smell a rat, or is it the whiff of corporate tobacco cash?

  • right_writes

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

    They are not based on either!

    International organisations such as this, are fairly easy for a bunch of politicians and or civil servants to subvert. As the author states above, there has been a massive decrease in cigarette smoking, in favour of vaping (I don’t have an axe to grind, I don’t smoke), I believe that because it is so successful a method for quitting smoking, it threatens the business of many a government department, school job, etc.etc..

    The kind of people that make a living out of people’s bad habits, want to continue making that living…


  • JoeDM

    All Smoking – yuck !!!

    Ban them !!!

    • Jacques Strap

      No smoke in E-cigs. It is vapor.

  • Rossspeak

    I gave up smoking several years ago – and have no axe to grind – but where this nonsense will backfire is in DISCOURAGING smokers to kick tobacco.
    If e-cigarettes are targeted and castigated as unhealthy – and using them inside pubs etc. is banned – current cigarette smokers may well think – sod it – why give up the real thing?.
    Stupid and shortsighted policy.

    • andagain

      Think of the future: if everyone gave up smoking, what would happen to the antismoking activists?

      • Rossspeak

        They would move on to fats, sugar or tiddlywinks – whatever they considered to be bad for us.

        • andagain

          Individuals would, but some specifically anti-smoking organisations would find themselves badly inconvenienced.

  • you_kid

    It’s a new lifestyle choice, it’s a growing market, the kids are beginning to love it – so it must end. Let’s not forget, deep down we are all wannabe socialist control freaks after all.

    Next up: statutory hoardings around pubs, kids might note what goes on in there…

  • timothy

    I wish they’d ban them in cinemas and theaters, people seem to think that because they’re allowed that it’s a complete free for all. I’ve had a couple of things ruined for me within the past two weeks as people infront/very near have been hammering away at one of these things. They’re not odourless and they vapour lingers in the air for ages too.

    • Entropy

      Did you ask them if your aftershave was bothering them?

    • Jacques Strap

      ‘They’re not odourless and they vapour lingers in the air for ages too’

      If you think that is bad, try taking a shower.

  • TrulyDisqusted

    THIS has nothing to do with health, or children or polar bears.

    Quitting tobacco addiction is a global $Billion dollar industry and unlike the other nicotine replacement therapies which incidentally are all owned by Big Pharma and the multinationals, e-cigs uses very low tech and so any small scale manufacturer can produce e-cigs…. and they are.

    The reason they want to control e-cigs is only because the “wrong type” of companies are making most of they profits.

    The legislation flying through Parliaments all over the world making e-cigs “a medicine” is designed to protect multinational corporations only.

    The only time governments legislate “for health reasons” is when their corporate sponsors tell them they’ve invented a solution to a problem nobody knew they had!

    • JoeDM

      Smoking kills

      • Colonel Mustard

        So does socialism but I can’t see that being banned.

        • ScottWichall

          Most forms of government kill. Its just socialism is a particularly nasty form of it.

          • Mukkinese

            Strange then, that it is the Tory party who are labelled the “Nasty party”…

            • Colonel Mustard

              Yes, that is strange. But the labelling is done mainly by socialists with an axe to grind and they tend to control the narrative, like you intervening here rather than fucking off back to the Guardian where you and your comrades belong.

              • ScottWichall

                lol, that told the fucker!

        • Mukkinese

          Perhaps, but it some way to go before it can match the death-toll of capitalism…

          • Jacques Strap

            Indeed. It has to save alot of lives to meet the balance.

            • Mukkinese

              Yes, of course. Silly me, I was forgetting the caring, sharing unselfish ethos that so pervades capitalism.

              No. Come to think of it, I was not…

              • Jacques Strap

                So what ‘caring sharing unselfish ethos’ are you referring to?

                Apart from the all men are equal, apart from those who are more equal than others ethos of socialism?

                I am not defending capitalism, just saying that socialism is not any better in terms of ending human misery. If anything it is worse, having a big government telling people what to do all the time, you end their freedom.

              • Colonel Mustard

                Capitalism might be many things but it has not yet formed a political ideology that has bestowed on the world the caring, sharing, unselfish ethos of:-

                Ho Chi Min
                Pol Pot

                etc. There is, as far as I know, no Capitalist Party. No capitalist political creed such as is identified within the socialist creed espoused by the Fabians, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and UAF.

              • Inverted Meniscus

                Capitalism is certainly imperfect but when compared to the murderous, oppressive, corrupt, vicious, spiteful cult that is socialism then I know which one I prefer.

          • Inverted Meniscus

            Try the numbers run up by Stalin, Mao, Hitler, pol Pot etc etc

      • Jacques Strap

        Vaping doesnt. Ever breathed in water vapor?

      • FergusReturns

        Whatever. We’re talking about vaping, not smoking. Do try to keep up.

      • Mukkinese

        Vaping does not.

        At least, no one has been able to show the slightest indication that it might or is suggesting that it might…

        • Jurie Botha

          It’s quite ridiculous, first they pester us to quit smoking, and when we do(by switching to vaping), they pester us because we’re not using Big Pharma’s (completely ineffective) way of quiting.

          If they ban E-Cigs, I WILL get mine off the black market. Vaper4Life

      • Inverted Meniscus

        Which might be a valid point if this article was about smoking.

    • right_writes

      “As soon as they’ve legislated the little manufacturers out of the market, e-cigs will be marketed as the sexiest thing alive and as healthy as one of your five a day….”

      Tobacco is a vegetable, after all! :)

    • Ken OWare

      And the insurance companies dont want it either. If it is proven, many of us already know, that it is a better cessation product then eventually they will have to pay for it too.

  • GraveDave

    We need more articles like this.

    About ten years ago the loony ASH were trying to put an argument together for saying that second hand smoke ‘in carpets’ and curtains etc.,was likely to give toddlers crawling about the floor a high risk of smoke related illness including cancer.

    How cigarette smoke in your carpet could harm … – Daily Mail…/How-cigarette-smoke-carpet-harm-baby.html

    8 Sep 2009 – The smoke even contains polonium-210 – the highly radioactivecarcinogen used to murder Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in …

    • rorysutherland

      To the credit of ASH they have now come out strongly in favour of e-cigs – which I honestly did not expect them to do. I respect them for this: I am much happier with campaigning organisations when they have some degree of open-mindedness. Many are just ploughing an obsessive furrow.

  • PT

    Oh looks, the ‘health’ extremists from tobaccotactics are coming out of the woodwork already. That there’s little evidence that plain packs help (youth smoking rates actually rose as a result), or that e-cigs are an unprecedented opportunity to vastly reduce smoking rates both matter little to them.

    Also note from ButcombeMan’s comment – they’ve moved on from targeting smoke i.e. health concerns. It’s all about nicotine now. Gotta keep those funds rolling in I suppose.

    • GraveDave

      Good click bait innit.

    • ButcombeMan

      I am nothing to do with tobaccotactics incidentally.

      I just did a bit of clicking around to see who and what Sutherland is.

      I did that because I was suspicious of his motives. I never heard of him before today.

      Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Sutherland’s is seemingly tobaccotactics. (I never heard of them before today).

      We are surely all better informed for understanding that.

      Oxygen usually helps.

      I am intrigued as to why Fraser gave him a platform. Did Big Tobacco or anyone else, pay a fat fee?

      No doubt in a spirit of openness, Fraser will be along shortly, to tell us if there was any “consideration for supply,” of the platform.

      • rorysutherland

        I have written a column for the Spectator every fortnight for about five years. It’s nobody’s business, really, but they pay me. This is one of those columns.

        I am slightly irked by Tobacco Tactics since they are a group at the University of Bath with a website which, while presumably well intentioned, is slightly prone to conspiracy theories – essentially nobody who works for the private sector is allowed to have an opinion on anything without accusations of being a paid shill for some corporate interest (whereas their own activities are assumed to be entirely high-minded and altruistic – even though there is large Big Pharma funding of their side of the debate). Nobody from Tobacco Tactics has ever attempted to contact me. My position in the Common Sense Alliance was very simple: I simply stated that we should demand that good evidence from the Australian Plain Packaging activity be sought before the legislation was introduced here – and was happy to accept the legislation if it was shown to work.

        I do of course have an interest in opposing the spread of the plain packaging legislation beyond tobacco: in alcoholic drinks, for instance. These legislative activities often become fashionable symbolic interventions to satisfy government’s need to be seen to do something” even if they don’t work – and can spread – to a point where you find you have to buy beer in a plain bottle simply labelled “beer”. I do believe that, in general, businesses are more trustworthy when their names and reputations are attached to the products they make. (The horsemeat scandal was really caused because beef was being traded as a commodity).

        I have worked in the advertising industry for 24 years. In those 24 years I have spent perhaps 24 hours working on tobacco. My principal interest is behavioural science, and I have been a keen advocate of e-cigs from the earliest days when they were nothing more than a cottage industry. These innovative businesses deserve our tentative support. I don’t want smokers to be bullied (tobacco taxes are sometimes a cruel assault on the very poor) but I think everyone who wants to quit or switch to ecigs should be able to do so as easily as possible. Is that unreasonable?

        • Ahobz

          ..and very welcome they are too. Butcombeman is a regular on the Spectator blogs but clearly not a subscriber, so has no idea what the magazine as a whle looks like, nor it seems who the contributors are.

    • Colonel Mustard

      And there are jobs a plenty dependent on extending the banning remit.

      “Smokefree is a public health campaign initiated and supported by Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health”

      Three tiers of networking “leaders” there already.

      “(Quit) Create effective partnerships with UK, European and International organisations that share our mission to improve the health, lifestyle and finances of smokers.”

      Partnerships, eh? Lucrative ones too I bet.

      “Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) was established in 1971 (20 January) by the Royal College of Physicians. It is a campaigning public health charity that works to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco. We do not attack smokers or condemn smoking.”

      I especially like the last statement because on their website they rather gleefully announce that:-

      “Legacy, an American anti-tobacco group, has sponsored a series of adverts which aim to shame celebrities who smoke. The adverts which feature Rihanna, Orlando Bloom and Lady Gaga suggest that celebrities who are photographed smoking are acting as unpaid tobacco spokespeople and provide tobacco companies with free marketing.”

      Shaming people who smoke eh?

      The British Heart Foundation gets into the act:-

      Then there is:-


      which doesn’t publish who funds it.

      Any more do-gooders getting lucratively paid for doing good on this over loaded bandwagon?

  • ButcombeMan

    Whenever I see this sort of pro nicotine and addiction guff, my first inclination is to check out if the writer has any connection with Big Tobacco.

    It looks as though Ogilvy Group does;

    Nuff said?.

    P.S. Why Has the writer been afforded column inches in the Speccie?
    Was a payment made?
    Perhaps we should be told Fraser.

    • El Cid

      Well, if there is no evidence that vaping is harmful, then restricting it’s use is very likely just moralizing.

      And, the anecdotal evidence so far indicates that smokers can successfully replace cigarettes with vaping. It feels “good”.

    • rorysutherland

      See above. I was not opposed to plain packaging if it were shown to work. I just think there’s a difference between “evidence-based policy making” and “policy-based evidence making”.

      • ButcombeMan

        If it is not experimented with, no one will ever know. Some of the arguments put up in objecting to plain packaging are specious.

        Policy based legislation is sometimes perfectly sensible and indeed honorable, if the long term social objective is to nudge behavior, away from, for example, smoking being a normal behavior.

        Cultural change like that is difficult to achieve without long term, policy driven, measures. Measures that some people will not like and some commercial interests will campaign against.

        Some of those opposed to no smoking in public areas used the same self serving argument you use, yet observably, where I go, many people have abandoned smoking, partly as a result.

        No problem at all with you being a consultant to Big Tobacco or whoever and surely no problem in me exposing that.

        We all now know what you are and can judge your comments appropriately and determine whose interests you are attempting to serve..

        • ScottWichall

          Well by the same token we can see that you are an authoritarian who considers it perfectly acceptable to engage in social engineering just because you can.

        • rorysutherland

          I wasn’t paid a penny by the Common Sense Alliance, by the way, but I suppose anyone in the advertising industry can reasonably be said to have an interest in preventing plain packaging being extended to alcoholic drinks, food, etc.

          Branding – the fact that the maker of something attaches his name to a product – is essential to the working of free markets. If you don’t know whom to punish/reward for a bad/good experience, the whole feedback loop by which good products are rewarded and bad ones shunned breaks down. This is why, against all ideology, the Soviet Union eventually demanded that factories stamp their names on things like nails, rivets, etc. When these products were traded as commodities, every rivet-maker simply tried to produce in quantity with no concern for quality.

          • ButcombeMan

            “Plain packing” of say cigarettes, does not have to exclude the name of the manufacturer or their product line as you and I both know full well.

            Most of your second paragraph is sadly just unconvincing Mandy Rice-Davis type, chaff . Who is it meant to fool? Not me.

            I suggest you quit now.

            Quitting is easier than you think

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