The cloudy question of vaping

E-cigarettes have recently taken centre stage again, as researchers call for further studies into the chemicals released by these products and the World Health Organisation reassesses their classification. In an ideal world, of course, no one would smoke, but at least e-cigarettes are clearly the lesser of two evils. That is, at any rate, what I would have believed until very recently. In May 2014 the American Heart Association’s journal published the largest major review of e-cigarettes and came to the conclusion that not only will they not help you quit smoking but they also contain many of the well-known toxins found in traditional cigarettes. This is a serious problem in and of itself, but one of my major issues with e-cigarettes is how they are advertised.

If we address the most pressing issues surrounding cigarettes first, those concerning our health, I personally find it worrying that e-cigarettes are presented as the ‘healthy’ alternative simply because they are not actual cigarettes. They are healthier, not healthy – an important distinction the e-cigarette companies choose to ignore – and even this fact now requires serious re-evaluation. This portrayal may be undermining the recent efforts made in education to highlight the dangers of smoking; e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, as well as traces of other toxins – the discovery of which has highlighted the limited extent of research into electronic cigarettes. Similarly, the lack of regulations and research has allowed e-cigarette companies to slip through the health organisations’ gaps, and the amount of nicotine (and presumably other chemicals) delivered to the body varies brand to brand. E-cigarette companies are exploiting this research vacuum to present ‘vaping’, as it has trendily come to be called, as safe or harmless. I’m not saying that e-cigarettes should be completely abandoned as a way to try and quit just because they are not wholly without health risks (neither are the patches and the gum which deliver a hit of nicotine to the body as well), but tighter rules must be introduced to at least regulate what e-cigarettes contain, and we have to stop the ambiguity surrounding adverts about the risks. The adverts are meant to make it plain that the product contains nicotine, but much like the obligatory ‘Drink Aware’ on alcohol promotion, this is often unclear, and I guarantee that the nicotine warning will be the smallest thing there.

One of the problems is that smoking, or in this case vaping, is being glamourised again. Examples of Benson & Hedges’ adverts from 1988 are startlingly similar to VIP e-cigarette adverts today: thin, attractive, and seemingly-rich models advertising a luxury product. These products should not be seen as a lavish pastime; the aspiration for anyone who ever dreamt of becoming Audrey Hepburn. They don’t just normalise smoking, but deliberately make it appealing. The problem with their depiction as luxuries is especially pertinent in a country where e-cigarettes can still be advertised and sold to under 18-year-olds. It is only in 2016 that electronic cigarettes will be licensed as a medicine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulation Agency (MHRA), not only enforcing strict safety standards on them but also prohibiting their advertisement to children under 18 years of age. Until then, glamourising e-cigarettes makes them desirable to teenagers and young adults, individuals who may never have smoked, but now consider this ‘cleaner’, attractive alternative. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the British Medical Association’s (BMA) director of professional activities, in an article for the BBC recently called for a ban on the advertising of e-cigarettes. There has been serious evidence that children who had never smoked were starting to use e-cigarettes because of the way they are being marketed. In 2013, a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than a quarter of a million adolescents who had never smoked used an e-cigarette. Do these adverts still look so harmless?

You may ask what the difference is between advertising e-cigarettes and other quitting methods, but that is my issue; they are not being advertised as ways to quit. E-cigarettes are deliberately being marketed as a replacement, not a medicine. E-Lites’ slogan is ‘Smoking, Reinvented’ – there is no separation here between cigarette smoking and vaping. If anything, it is a deliberate nod to continue with e-cigarettes as a reinvented, and conveniently ‘safer’ way to smoke. The recently banned E-Lites tagline, ‘What are you missing?’ promotes the handy ability to use the product inside (although only this August further research published by the World Health Organisation claims that there are dangerous chemicals in the vapour produced which will be harming bystanders). Vapourlites emphasise the growing fashion of vaping. Neither suggest quitting, just swapping. And yes, this can be seen as a positive thing. Yes of course it is healthier for a smoker to be vaping than having them step out for a ciggie every time they get a craving, but shouldn’t we still be encouraging people to quit altogether? On the Vapourlites website, the answer to why one should choose their product opens with the statement that ‘Electronic cigarettes are becoming very popular’, before then going on to say that ‘people are even handing over their usual unhealthy cigarettes and joining this new revolution’. The focus is on this ‘new revolution’, not the use of e-cigarettes as a way to quit.

The wording Vapourlite chooses would even suggest that quitting smoking is a convenient by-product of the e-cigarette. What I find particularly disturbing here is the possibility that the e-cigarette companies are beginning to target non-smokers. For the purposes of survival, they want a growing market; what is the benefit for them if they successfully wean everyone off cigarettes? It is a worrying thought, but the willingness of regular cigarette companies to jump on the bandwagon and branch into electronic cigarettes would suggest that they too see a wider market.