One cheer for the E-Cigarette Summit
Today's E-Cigarette Summit at the Royal Society in London will no doubt offer further evidence that vaping is a safe activity, that it could save lives through smokers switching to e-cigs and that vaping does not act as a gateway to smoking. But underpinning the whole conversation will be the assumption that the views of public-health professionals and anti-smoking campaigners should determine the choices available to people who enjoy nicotine.
There are many vapers who are happy to go along with this line of thinking. Having found a product that gives them the pleasure of nicotine but at much lower risk to their health, they are alarmed that various bodies, from the EU to the World Health Organisation, have concluded that the developing market for e-cigarettes should be choked off. Scare stories about health risks and claims about the spectre of tobacco firms getting children 'hooked' on nicotine - particularly the bogus argument that pleasant flavours are used to target kids - have been used to justify stiff regulations. The new Tobacco Products Directive will make many popular devices illegal - not that anyone would be able to find out about them, thanks to a ban on advertising.
But this understandable desperation to keep valuable products legal could lead to further affirmation of the power of health lobbyists. So let's be clear: just because some anti-tobacco voices have realised that their claims of evidence-based policy would be fundamentally undermined if they ignored the growing evidence of the safety and efficacy of e-cigs, that doesn't mean they are suddenly the 'good guys'. And such support is likely to be fickle. If evidence should emerge of a small risk from e-cigs, then these self-same people could just as easily turn against vaping.
Moreover, there is no room in this worldview for the dual-user: someone who likes to vape, but still enjoys smoking from time to time. Their choices are still being removed at every turn. The Royal Society of Public Health, ASH and others are absolutely explicit that their sole intention is an 'endgame' for smoking. The only good vapers are ex-smokers.
And there's the exclusion of the tobacco industry from the discussion. While tobacco companies have been slow off the mark in terms of innovation, such huge organisations could surely catch up through buying smaller companies and developing products further. For example, this article is being written using the word processor on Google Drive. But that product started out as an experimental product called Writely created by a four-man startup in 2005. Google bought the company that made it in 2006 along with another company that had created online spreadsheets. Now Google Drive is a veritable Swiss Army knife of applications and storage services. Tobacco companies have the research resources to do something similar in the e-cigs market and are working on other reduced-risk nicotine products - but even the hint of tobacco involvement makes any product verboten in the eyes of public-health campaigners.
The best argument for vaping is also the best one for smoking: choice. Offer us a range of high-quality, convenient ways to enjoy nicotine and leave us to make up our own minds. Anything that consolidates the authority of public health has the potential to undermine our freedom in the long run.