Friday, August 30, 2013

Will the Electronic Cigarette Save the Tobacco Industry?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Electronic cigarettes are the best thing to have happened the cigarette industry since the invention of the filter tip. The Government should act quickly to ban then, before the turn the tide and make smoking fashionable again.

Electronic cigarettes, for those who might not have come across them, are ostensibly another aid to quit smoking, like chewing gum, patches or inhalers. The difference between electronic cigarettes and their antecedents is that they’re a little more sophisticated and, proponents say, they work that much better.

The problem with patches or gum is that none of them feel like smoking. Electronic cigarettes come as near as possible, releasing a nicotine vapour, getting hot, having to be ignited, and so on.

Paul Kehoe, the Government Chief Whip, caused a small stir a few weeks when he suggested that the Government regulate electronic cigarettes just as they regulate any other medicine. People couldn’t see where he was coming from. Surely if they help people kick the demon weed, they should be available on every street corner?

Yes, they should, if that were all electronic cigarettes do. The problem with electronic cigarettes is that their advertising gives actual cigarettes something that they haven’t been able to advertise in nearly half-a-century – glamour, and lots of it.

The next time you flick through a magazine or are shopping and spot a poster, look out for the electronic cigarette ads. Those slinky, sophisticated women, those rugged and fearless men, puffing away – do they look like they’re selling a health aid? Or do they look like cigarette advertisers have always looked, like sellers of a lifestyle?

Once you start advertising a message that electronic smoking is cool and sophisticated, it isn’t a great jump to start to wonder what actual smoking is like. Is that cool and sophisticated too?

If electronic cigarettes were selling only to those who are trying to give up smoking, they certainly make a very slight effort to get that point across. The weight of their message seems to be that if smoke (electronically, wink, wink), you instantly become as chic as Audrey Hepburn or as cool as Humphrey Bogart. You’d be a while trying to make Milk of Magnesia look that cool.

And this is the danger. The nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, certainly, but a nicotine craving leaves your body within twenty days. There’s no trace of the stuff left in the system, and it’s not natural to crave it if you’ve never been introduced to it. Cigarettes’ real attraction is their transformative power, to make any ordinary Joe or Jane into a Hollywood star. You might be in Swinford but once you light up you’re on Sunset Boulevard.

The Government’s current campaign to fight smoking by making manufacturers package cigarettes in plain packaging may be completely pointless, such is the additive nature of the cigarette. Martin Lindstrom details an experiment conducted on smokers in his book Buy-ology, where a group of smokers were connected up to a brain scanner and shown various anti-smoking ads – the blackened lungs, the rotting teeth, and so on. In theory, the areas of the brain that register revulsion should have lit up. Instead, it was the areas of the brain that register cravings that rang the bells.

Meaning that when smokers were shown pictures of the scientifically proven consequences of their smoking, the rational part of their brains were completely by-passed. All that registered was: “man, I could sure use a smoke once this experiment is over.”

That’s how addictive they are. It is hard work to smoke now, in comparison to years ago. You have to go outside in the pub, and leave the company. You are in the rain and, if you are in the capital, you are liable to be hassled by all manner of ne-er-do-wells. But still the people carry on, even people who are too young to remember a time when you could smoke in bars.

The smoking ban is ten years old this year – anyone in their mid-twenties or younger is too young to remember being in a old-style bar, when the air was so thick with smoke that you couldn’t see the end of the room. And still they want to smoke, even though they have only ever been discouraged to do so for all their sentient lives.

Why would they do that? They do that because cigarettes are the most glamorous and addictive things humanity has managed to invent in five hundred years, and the most dangerous since the atomic bomb. By the time it was realised just how bad for public health they are, cigarettes were already an essential part of adult life for a huge, huge section of the population. It’s taken generations to row that back to where we are now, and all those advance are in danger of being lost by the glamorous way that electronic cigarettes are allowed to advertise.

The easy thing to do with cigarettes would be to ban them outright, but the lesson of history tells us that prohibition is always a disaster. And the Government can’t price them to the hilt because that will make them even more glamorous, and associate smoking with sunbathing in Monaco and skiing in Saint-Moritz.

Funnily enough, the Government is currently doing as good a job as can be done with cigarettes – heavily regulating where they can be sold, and to whom. Penalizing advertising and lumping on as much tax is as feasible. Ideally, the habit will get a long, slow death and by the time it finally dies off people will have forgotten it was ever widespread in the first place.

Unless the industry gets a boost from the electronic cigarette industry, and is able to ride the coattails of that advertising. If, as may happen tomorrow or next week, a model arrives who becomes the poster girl for electronic cigarettes, and she’s all over the papers, looking chic with her electronic cigarette. And all her adoring followers will wonder: why should I always eat spam? I wonder what actual bacon is like?

Ban the things now, and cut them off at the pass.