By Fergus Mason
Anyone who’s been following the battle over vaping will, by now, be very familiar with a lot of the myths being circulated by our opponents in the public health industry:
Formaldehyde! Gateway effect! Think of the children!
You know the sort of thing I mean; it’s in every hysterical UCSF press release, every shoddy Daily Mail article and every badly researched BBC regional radio programme. I think it’s safe to say we’re all sick of seeing these distortions, and just as sick of patiently repeating the actual facts to a set of critics have no desire to listen.
What interests me, though, is another side to what’s going on. I’ve been looking at the difference between the arguments we’re using and the arguments tobacco controllers seem to be responding to; the meta-myths, if you like. Or the straw man arguments, to nail it down more precisely. When people like Martin McKee attack what we’re saying they often slant it first, to either make us look worse or turn our actual points into something that’s easier to deny.
So here are some examples of what they say we say, and what we really say. It’s not exactly an inspiring list if you like to believe that people have good intentions, but I think it brings out some interesting points all the same.
Myth # 1 Vaping is Safe
What they say we say – “Vaping is safe”
What we really say – “Vaping is much safer than smoking”
I can’t recall when – if ever – I saw anyone claim that vaping is safe. That would be silly, irresponsible and wrong. Of course vaping isn’t safe. That’s because nothing is safe. Everything we do has some level of risk, however tiny, attached to it. Brushing your teeth? If you work too hard you could break the brush and cut yourself. Hoovering? That cable is a serious trip hazard. Scissors? I’d happily bet that more people have been injured opening vape mail than have ever been hurt by an e-cigarette.
What I do hear vapers say is that vaping is safer than smoking. There’s no doubt about this at all; study after study has compared e-cig vapour with tobacco smoke. Every time the researchers have found that the substances which make smoking so deadly are either present at much lower levels or just not there at all. The basic principle of toxicology is “The dose makes the poison”. A lower dose of fewer poisons means less risk. That’s about as open and shut as cases get.
Myth # 2
What they say we say – “Secondhand e-cig smoke is harmless”
What we really say – “That’s not smoke”
Semantics? No, not really. We all know it isn’t the nicotine that makes tobacco smoke so deadly. It isn’t really anything else tobacco-specific either. It’s the simple fact that it’s smoke. Dry and shred some organic free range kale, roll it up in a Rizla and light the end; it won’t be much less harmful than a Marlboro because, even though you’re inhaling smoke from the healthiest shredded vegetable matter anyone could possibly imagine, you’re still inhaling smoke.
Smoke can kill quickly. Many people who die in house fires aren’t burned at all; they’re killed by smoke inhalation. Their lungs fill with it, they can’t breathe and they lose consciousness. But, in smaller doses, it will also kill slowly. Burning practically anything creates carcinogens. The UN estimates four million people die a year from cooking on open fires, through cancer and respiratory illnesses. The biggest killer in cigarette smoke is carbon monoxide, which causes chronic oxygen starvation.
The vapour released by e-cigarettes is not created by burning anything. It does not contain combustion products. It does not contain suspended solid particles of burned organic matter. It is not, in short, smoke.
Myth # 3
What they say we say – “Teens aren’t attracted to e-cigarettes”
What we really say – “Teens shouldn’t vape, but it’s better than smoking”
The most pernicious and irritating argument parroted by vaping opponents is the “Think of the children!!!” line.
In their world e-cig vendors are cynically trying to hook children on nicotine to build up their future customer base, and vapers are quite happy to let them do it. After all those sweet and fruity flavours can’t possibly be aimed at adults, can they? Surely smokers only want tobacco and menthol, just to remind us of how great smoking was, so everything else is a lure for the kiddies. Cue images of vape vendors loitering outside a school in a grubby raincoat asking passing children,
“Do you want to come with me and see some puppies? No? Okay then, how about a mech mod?”
Is it a good idea for teenagers to start vaping? Of course not. Then again it isn’t a good idea for them to start drinking, having sex and doing drugs either. It certainly isn’t a good idea for them to start smoking but, despite decades of age limits and advertising bans, more than a quarter still do.
Is it a good idea for those teens to start vaping?
Yes, it is. The absolute worst case is they start vaping instead of starting something a hundred times more dangerous. The best case is they use an e-cigarette to get themselves off the real ones. Repeated studies by ASH always reach the same conclusion:
regular use of electronic cigarettes amongst children and young people is rare and is confined almost entirely to those who currently or have previously smoked
Myth # 4
What they say we say – “It’s just water vapour”
What we really say – “It’s non-toxic vapour”
One issue we need to address, as activists, is what vapers themselves know. Some people who use e-cigs do seem to believe that what comes out of them is “just water vapour”. I suspect this is limited to cigalike users; anyone who’s bought e-liquid, or made their own, is well aware of substances like PG and VG. Of course it’s not just water vapour; otherwise we’d fill our tanks from the tap instead of paying for juice.
Does it actually matter though? No, not really. It doesn’t matter what kind of vapour it is as long as it’s not harmful vapour, and all the evidence says it isn’t. At the levels encountered by bystanders the toxicity is essentially nil.
Myth # 5
What they say we say – “E-cigs don’t contain chemicals”
What we really say – “Levels of toxic chemicals are very low”
This is just an attempt to play on chemophobia: “Oh, those nasty vapers say their things don’t contain chemicals, but we’ve checked and they do!” Yes, that’s right; e-liquid contains chemicals. Well so what? Everything contains chemicals! Water is a chemical. Oxygen is a chemical. PG, VG and nicotine are all, of course, chemicals.
A lot of people think that anything containing chemicals must be, by definition, unhealthy. That’s just not true. The fact that something is a chemical tells you precisely nothing about how safe it is; it basically just tells you that it exists.
Vitamins are chemicals, and they’re good for you. Gamma radiation isn’t a chemical but it’s very, very bad for you.
What matters is whether or not the chemicals in e-cigarette vapour are toxic at the levels you encounter while vaping, and we know the answer to that: They aren’t. Is inhaling vapour as safe as not inhaling vapour? No, but the same can be said for almost anything. If you drink too much water (a chemical, remember…) you’ll be dead in a couple of hours. People die of water intoxication in the UK every year and it doesn’t take as much as you’d think; ten pints can see you off.
Myth # 6
What they say we say – “Big Vapour doesn’t want regulation”
What we really say – “What? ‘Big Vapour’? Are you insane?”
There is no “Big Vapour”. People who use this term are either being deliberately dishonest or they can’t get it into their heads that this isn’t BAT they’re talking about. There isn’t a cabal of powerful people manipulating vapers and the industry. There isn’t even really a single industry. I’d say there are four; the tobacco company brands, the big independent cigalike brands, the major Chinese manufacturers like Kanger and Innokin, and the small modders and independents.
Anyway, let’s try that again…
Myth # 6 (Director’s cut)
What they say we say – “Big Vapour doesn’t want regulation”
What we really say – “Vapers, and the industry, want sensible regulation”
Some people in public health like to claim that vaping is completely unregulated – “like the Wild West” was one memorable quote. It isn’t, of course, but that’s beside the point. What they’re trying to do here is make out that the industry, and vapers themselves, are opposed to any regulation. This is, of course, not true at all.
Most vapers, vendors and manufacturers would be perfectly happy with childproof packaging requirements. Very few would object to a ban on sales to under-18s. Vapers, for the obvious reason, are big fans of a blacklist of potentially harmful ingredients; most people now look for diacetyl-free liquid, even though the actual risk from vaping most diacetyl flavours is actually pretty insignificant. (ED: Some premium e-liquids have used diacetyl to replicate a creamy, buttery flavour, these should be avoided as diacetyl poses an avoidable risk.)
What we object to is regulation that’s disproportionate, unscientific or just plain stupid. Banning flavours because “they’re targeted at children”? No. Limiting tank sizes to 2ml? No. Bringing vaping under smoke-free laws? No. We object to those regulations because there’s no reason for them. But if you want to set standards for battery safety, go right ahead; there won’t be any complaints from “Big Vapour”.
Myth # 7
What they say we say – “Nicotine is harmless”
What we really say – “Nicotine is harmless to vapers and bystanders”
The focus of the anti-smoking movement has shifted disturbingly from actual smoking to nicotine, and it’s hard not to suspect that the rise of e-cigarettes has a lot to do with that. People who used to lecture about the dangers of smoking now lecture about the dangers of nicotine addiction. That’s fine, except the “dangers” of nicotine addiction are pretty much zero.
In fact it’s not even clear that nicotine, separated from tobacco smoke, is really very addictive at all, but let’s assume it is for the moment. And let’s assume that apples are, too. If you felt an overwhelming compulsion to eat three or four apples a day, but stopped at six because any more made you feel queasy, it would be fair to call you an apple addict. But what are the dangers? Correct; there aren’t any.
Nicotine is pretty much the same. Yes, it’s lethal in a high enough dose, but it’s just not possible to come anywhere near that dose from vaping; long before you were in danger you’d have a headache and nausea, and you’d put the e-cigarette down. Just like you’d stop eating apples when the thought of another one made you feel ill.
Even e-liquid isn’t the terrifying substance the media would have you think. There’s been one confirmed death, and that was a toddler who drank a large bottle of high-strength mixing base (not vapeable liquid) in very murky circumstances. Is a toddler going to die if it drinks 2ml of 24mg? No. As for nicotine in “passive vapour”, you’ll absorb more eating a tomato.
Myth # 8
What they say we say – “Vaping doesn’t renormalize smoking”
What we really say – “Smoking is already normal!”
The “renormalisation” argument has always made my skin crawl, frankly. It’s not just that it’s dishonest; all those years we were told that the smoking ban was to protect bar staff, then it turns out it was to “denormalise” us. It’s also terrifyingly Orwellian. When the state begins to decide what legal behaviours should be “denormalised” then we’re on a very slippery slope, and at the bottom of it the Thought Police are waiting. When “denormalising” the wrong kind of behaviour doesn’t work what’s the next step? Criminalising it? Compulsory medical intervention? Room 101?
Myth # 9
What they say we say – “The EU is banning e-cigarettes”
What we really say – “The EU is imposing restrictions that amount to a ban”
The EU, in one of its more obnoxious bits of anti-vaping propaganda, ridiculed the idea that the upcoming TPD is a ban on e-cigarettes. Their aim was obvious; to make us look as if we were either hysterical or dishonest. The fact is, though, we’re all well aware that the TPD doesn’t officially ban e-cigs. Any device that complies with its requirements will be perfectly legal to sell or buy after the Directive goes into force.
There’s only one problem. No existing e-cig complies with it, and it’s far from clear whether any e-cig can.
On paper the TPD isn’t a ban. In reality it is. Looking around my desk right now there is nothing that will be legally on sale after next May. My tanks are too big, my mods aren’t consistent enough and my liquid is either too strong or in 50ml bottles. When everything I own is going to be taken off the market, it amounts to a ban.
Myth # 10
What they say we say – “Die, evil fascist nanny state swine!!!!!”
What we really say – “Leave us alone or we’ll push back”
Martin McKee and Stan Glantz are the world champions at claiming vapers are a pack of psychotic attack dogs but plenty of their followers, plus more than a few useless journalists, are happy to agree. Astroturf, trolls, stalkers – all those labels get thrown at us regularly. And all of them are wrong. Can anyone come up with even a single example of vapers tracking down a public health official just to abuse them? I doubt it. On the other hand, remember Professor John Ashton?
Vapers aren’t attacking public health; public health is attacking us, just as they’ve made a career out of attacking smokers, drinkers and anyone who prefers cake to kale. It’s just that this time, to their surprise, we’re hitting back. Vapers have done nothing wrong; we’ve just found a way to use nicotine that’s much less harmful to us and to others. Our new hobby has already saved lives; given a chance it will save many more plus free up billions of pounds from the NHS budget that can be spent on other things. And, for this, we’re being attacked on a daily basis.
Most of us would like nothing more than to have a civilised conversation with public health, and do what we can to help move smokers over to vaping. All they have to do is talk to us, and many do. They never get attacked, of course. Only the ones who insult and troll us get a harsh reaction. Maybe, to avoid that, they could start discussing vaping in good faith and stop misrepresenting what we really say.
Thank you to Fergus Mason for this post. As usual, what guest posters write is their own words and may not represent the views of ECigaretteDirect.co.uk.
Tobacco Myth Buster, EU Commission
Use of electronic cigarettes (vapourisers) among adults in Great Britain, ASH.org, May 2016
Fagerstrom, K Dependence on tobacco and nicotine, 2013