My friend is a grown man dependant on a restaurant’s plug socket. Leaving food and conversation, cursing, he rustles around desperately trying to work his e-charger whilst sucking the last vapour from his flagging e-cigarette. Its battery is almost flat, meaning he will soon be forced to revert to tobacco. Through a fog of fumes children watch this slightly sad, curious spectacle. Yet my friend absolutely assures me this is a credible alternative to smoking and a serious effort to avoid terminal illness.
What he is claiming, in essence, is that the best way to stop craving nicotine is to continue taking it in electronic form. It’s not. It’s an unregulated, self-defeating, untested cop-out, and a con.
E-cigarettes (e-cigs) have become big business. The UK now has around 1.3 million users - a 700,000 increase from last year. Manufacturers are attracting major investment and advertising spending jumped from £1.7 million in 2010 to £13.1 million in 2012. Retail sales in the USA will for the first time exceed $1 billion in 2013, and e-cigs of all shapes, sizes and flavours can be seen hanging from the mouths of former Playboy bunnies, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lindsay Lohan. These products are celebrated because they contain no tar or tobacco and are therefore assumed to be healthier than ‘normal’ cigarettes. While it’s likely that they are, the truth – uncomfortably for millions of fans - is that for now we don’t know.
Currently the industry is unregulated, meaning whatever the label says isn’t necessarily correct. There is no legal requirement for it to be. That will change in 2016 when regulations are introduced and products can be licensed, classified as medicine and prescribed by doctors.
A study by the US Food and Drug Administration found that one product’s claim of having no nicotine was in fact false, and another actually contained traces of toxic chemicals used in antifreeze. World Health Organisation research discovered nicotine levels in some Lego-brick-sized replacement cartridges to be as high as 100mg, which is potentially lethal if swallowed by a child (0.5-1 mg ingested per kilo of bodyweight causes acute nicotine poisoning and likely death). The lack of regulation also means that your ten-year-old child can walk into a shop, perfectly legally, and buy an e-cigarette containing one of the most addictive drugs available.
Common sense says it’s fair to expect e-cigarettes to prove to be healthier than smoking tobacco, but they haven’t yet been used long enough to make a definitive, well informed, scientific judgement. There was a time when tobacco was administered to cure many ailments, and it’s now known to cause dysfunction in most internal organs. So for the time being trust must be put in the manufacturers. Their word must be taken that what you are putting in your body – and maybe your child’s body – is not something designed to stop parts of a car from freezing.
But if e-cigarettes do in fact turn out to be a healthier option, what could be the problem?
Most worryingly, they don’t actually do what they are supposed to, and that means users are likely to return to smoking tobacco. While some research suggests e-cigs can help to ease cravings, there is no reliable, independent data to demonstrate they help smokers beat nicotine addiction. Knowing this, and not believing their luck, tobacco manufacturers are lining up to unveil their own lines of gadgets and accessories.
A glance at Google found various manufacturers offering, amongst many, many other things: cartridges, clearomizers, dual-coil clearomizers, atomizers, spare atomizer heads, premium e-liquid, USB chargers, mains adaptors, car chargers, syringes and mixing needles, ‘Super Tank’ kits, batteries, Gold RG500 Glassomizers, e-juice, threaded aluminium plinths and 4-ring anodised drip tips. It was hard enough remembering a packet and lighter, now addicts must wear a nicotine tool belt wherever they go.
Philip Morris International, owner of the world’s number one brand Marlboro, recently announced it will enter the e-cigarette market. Spying a new opportunity to profit from those who say they don’t want lung cancer as well as those who continue to smoke, loyal customers will be able to buy ‘vaping’ kits costing up to £50 a time.
But put facts, figures, regulations and research data aside for a second. The problem with electronic cigarettes is that instead of helping, they actually interfere with and complicate the straightforward, but incredibly difficult, task of overcoming addiction to nicotine.
Despite my fear that every word from hereon in will be dismissed as patronizing, condescending or smug, I should disclose that I am an ex-smoker. And I still love smoking.
The treat of an Embassy on a cold, blue-sky Christmas morning. Lighting up after a Chinese, still with the taste of sweet and sour pork in my mouth. Breathing a sigh of smoke and relief over the dashboard while screeching away from a nightmare appointment.
It is one of the hardest addictions to beat, if not the hardest. Such a statement would be laughed at by many misunderstanding non-smokers, but the reality is that the chemical nicotine works in much the same way as opium and crack cocaine.
Years and years of devotion, dedication and habit deeply engrain a programme into the brain. It becomes wired to know when it should receive nicotine - be it at the same point of the same journey, with half-time oranges, when stressed, when celebrating or when bored.
The only way to stop that is to re-programme the brain. It is agony, but it gets easier in what feel like unhelpfully small steps. Each ‘cigarette situation’ has to be endured without nicotine. Every one of those thousands of occasions, multiple times each, before the drug had lost its grip.
This process simply cannot be successful if the brain continues to receive nicotine, any more than swapping gateau for chocolate biscuits would be when trying to diet. For ‘vapers’ who expect no more from e-cigarettes than the vague possibility it might be easier to cut down the fags for a week or two, vape away.
But the vast majority of users I know trumpet these gimmick products as a serious way to give up something that kills 6 million people per year. These users, like my friend, are being sniggered at by manufacturers who have stumbled across a barely believable business model: eye-catchingly repackage nicotine with pink atomizers, sell it to people who want to give it up. And do so without any credible supporting evidence or obligation to tell the truth.
The game changes in 2016, but in anticipation it is only right that these products are scrutinised like serious medicines – something it seems most users have so far naively failed to do.