E-cigarettes: an ethical or a class issue?

Listening to the experts at May's OTC Bulletin conference on e-cigarettes, I sense the fate of this new market lies as much in our class prejudices as anything.

The public health potential from "vaping" was huge, I heard, and we were reminded that real smoking kills and causes massive health problems.

Professor John Britten of the Tobacco Advisory Group has said we'd save five million lives if British smokers switched to this alternative.

ASH presented research in April 2014 that dispelled the fear that vaping is a gateway for non-smokers to start smoking. Others have said that 60% of smokers are likelier to stay fag-free by taking up vaping rather than trying the cold turkey route.

So why is it that only 35% of the British population see them as a public health bonus and that 22% actively disagree with that notion?  Why do most of us have no real opinion on this massive issue?

According to Oliver Kershaw from e-cigaretteforum.com, the first generation of products created concerns, and the 27 or so product companies and their trade association ECITA are pursuing better product design, packaging and ingredients.

Licensing is the main issue of course and while the regulators in the EU and the USA's FDA decide if they are to be treated as a medical device, as tobacco or as something else, the companies involved and smokers hope for a set of standards to bring reassuring clarity and direction.

Once that is settled, the debate seems to zoom in on two things: the risk of advertising to and appealing to children - one for the regulators and responsible manufactures to fix - and whether addiction to e-cigarette nicotine will keep people smoking. The debaters said that while nicotine is addictive, it is the tar and additives in real fags that kills and harms; if some get hooked on e-cigs, it's the lesser of two evils, and akin to an expresso coffee or Red Bull addiction.

There are 8 million conflicted British smokers seeking a Tobacco Smoking Alternative, said Tim Phillips from Niccoventures.  The numbers of smokers turning to vaping have trebled in the last few years to 2.1million, largely to cut down or stop smoking for good, ASH claim.

But Kershaw spoke of "shocking media fear-mongering" in the likes of the Mail newspaper, a title widely seen as the voice of Middle England and, according to some, one that reflects our deepest prejudices.

Smoking, the 'filthy habit', is seen by some as the habit and problem of the disadvantaged, and smoking diseases definitely reflect our unequal society.

It is interesting that if e-cigarettes succeed over their rival solution, nicotine patches, it will be because they have the look and feel of a real cigarette for people who like the ritual of smoking.

Setting aside the legitimate concerns over this product category, one can't help ask this: are our hard-wired feelings on 'filthy cigarettes' getting in the way of something that seems to have massive public health potential?   Are the chattering classes taking a class stance on something that could save lives?

Kay Williamson