First came e-mail. Then e-commerce. Then E-volution - the 2001 movie almost exclusively broadcast on E4. Now, e-cigarettes. It was only a matter of time before cigarettes went electronic, like Bowie in Berlin. But soon enough we might have to make like a clumsy mid-90s raver and lose the 'e'.
The UK Royal College of Physicians have published a new report reiterating e-cigs' use as a quitting tool. However, legislators all over the world are falling over themselves to regulate e-cigarettes into e-blivion, even though the science doesn't always back them up.
On a basic level, we know this about vaping: it's better for you than smoking, but worse for you than not vaping or smoking. This is similar to any potentially dangerous activity. Bungee jumping is a riskier activity than jumping off a building, but it's still worse for you than staying on the damn ground. And judging by the lack of scientific consensus on vaping and bungee jumping, that's all the experts can agree on.
What do scientists say about e-cigs?
Just as there are now almost as many appealing brands of e-cigarettes as there are regular ol' cancersticks, scientific opinion on vaping comes in a number of flavours. Sadly, the guys at the lab just can't seem to pick a favourite.
Some journal articles paint vaping in a positive light, claiming that smokers who switched to e-cigarettes dramatically decreased their tobacco intake. Yet others have gone so far as to link vaping to chronic neuropathology. I don't know what that is, but anything chronic that doesn't involve Dre is probably bad.
Speaking of doctors, the NHS's Quit4Life service advises patients to use e-cigarettes as a quitting aid based on a Public Health England report that deemed vaping 95% healthier than smoking. Confusingly however, the World Health Organisation does not share that view. They penned a press release in which they make it clear they do not see e-cigarettes as valid quitting devices.
It all begins to feel like a game of e-tennis (or Pong, if you prefer). Unfortunately, the lack of consensus on the matter isn't useful for any government trying to make a firm decision, and it's just a matter of time before all this back-and-forth gives everyone a sore neck.
How governments have (over)reacted to e-cigarettes
Earlier this year, Hawaiian lawmakers passed the 'Clean Air Bill', banning vaping in places where smoking is already prohibited (think: public transport, restaurants etc.). This is one of those bills that used a friendly name to mask a sinister core, like House Bill 2 or Bill Pullman in Lost Highway.
This new bill may not be quite as horrible, but it is seemingly based on false assumptions about e-cigarettes. According to Hawaiian politicians, anyone near an e-cigarette is at risk of 'secondhand vaping'. Yet further studies have proven conclusively (well, as conclusively as any e-cig study can) that secondhand vaping is a load of hot electronic air.
Wales, that other land of grass skirts, flower necklaces and, crucially, flip-flops, also made headlines when The Welsh Assembly proposed legislation to ban e-cigarettes in public places. But when they heard the ban wasn't actually backed by science, they promptly cancelled it, and proposed a new ban only prohibiting e-cigarettes in places where children are present. This strategy is commonly known as a desperate appeal to the Helen Lovejoys of the world, who see "Think of the children!" as a legitimate political argument.
Such major policy decisions won't be ignored by the rest of the world's powers, who could decide to follow suit. Don't get me wrong, this could turn out to be positive... but only if e-cigarettes are eventually proven to be extremely harmful. The problem is, we don't know if e-cigs are as deadly as bungee jumping, or just deadly like this Muppet.
Why this legislation is dangerous
Along with propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine, e-liquids usually contain nicotine - which we all know is bad and addictive. Yet despite the position of the WHO, thousands of people worldwide still use e-cigarettes to quit smoking successfully. A study from University College London found that 900,000 people used e-cigarettes to give up nicotine entirely since 2014 in England alone.
"It is finally possible, at long last, to say that... e-cigarettes continue to be described both as a miracle answer to the devastating effects of cigarette smoking and as a grave danger to the public health." So said Dr. Thomas Glynn, the outgoing director of the American Cancer Society, in 2014. His jokey non-conclusion encapsulates the major problem with the current stance on e-cigs: more research is needed before we can rule them out as useful, and government hostility to the e-cigarette industry is not helping.