Emily Carver is a broadcaster and commentator.
Last week, I decided to stop vaping. I’d never been a big smoker of regular cigarettes, indulging only after a glass of wine or two with friends. But there was something different about the little e-cigarette. They’re discreet, compact and, crucially, they don’t leave you smelling like an ashtray.
So, when the first Covid lockdown started, out of boredom and curiosity I started puffing away on the device while I worked from home. Soon, I was getting through one cartridge of so-called juice per day; and, in the past few months, that had risen to two a day (each containing about the same amount of nicotine as a 20-pack of cigs).
I was vaping in bed, on the go, at the office. Everywhere and anywhere, really.
I’d estimate the vice was costing me about £40 to £50 a week and, in my mind, that’s a pretty silly amount to spend on what is a pretty pointless habit. It may not have been harming my health (much), but it certainly didn’t serve any real benefit (beyond being quite relaxing and enjoyable at times).
What’s interesting, though, is that I was never addicted to cigarettes and, since quitting the vape, I haven’t felt the need to swap back to the death sticks. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that vapes and e-cigarettes are particularly addictive nicotine products, and that it’s the taste and the way they so quickly become an extension of your arm (because you can use them anywhere) that makes them so.
But after some toing and froing I decided I no longer want be dependent on inhaling strange liquid from a device that looks curiously like a USB stick! (And I mean it this time).
The reason I’m telling this story is not just to hold myself to account, but because the media has recently been awash with negative reports about vaping, and politicians are being asked to give their view on what should be done to clamp down on it – always concerning when it comes to things that people enjoy.
It’s undeniable that vapes are disturbingly popular among children (particularly the tooty-fruity disposable ones that look like neon highlighters). Anyone who has taken a short walk down their high street or past a local school will see groups of teenagers puffing away at them non-stop.
You could argue that this is a net positive for society, though not for the environment. The rise in youth vaping has been accompanied by a decrease in smoking rates; if these kids would otherwise be smoking tar-laden cigarettes, then vaping is clearly the less bad option and should not be feared.
But, having experienced just how addictive these things are first-hand, I’d guess there are also children out there who never would have smoked regularly but instead are getting their first taste of nicotine through vapes – and then getting hooked. There may be nothing harmful about consuming nicotine on its own, but addiction is in my view generally undesirable. At least that’s what I’ve found.
Having said this, though, I find the moral panic around vaping (pushed largely by the anti-smoking lobby) counterproductive. The evidence we have strongly suggests that vapes really aren’t very harmful at all, and certainly considerably less so than cigarettes (that’s why the NHS prescribes vaping as a health measure for smokers).
But there is undoubtedly a dark side to the industry, and one which policy makers as well as the police, parents and teachers do need to grapple with.
According to recent reports, children are using illegal devices, containing high levels of lead, nickel and chromium. Clearly, illegal devices should not be sold to British consumers, and they certainly should not be sold to children and teenagers.
However, this does not mean ministers should heed the demands of those who want to regulate and ban legal vapes out of existence.
Prohibition is unlikely to have the desired effect. Australia has given into the moral panic and banned vapes for everyone unless you have a medically approved prescription. Even non-nicotine disposable vapes are illegal and there are tight restrictions on those permitted with a prescription.
And what’s the result of the crackdown? A thriving black market.
So, it is true that vapes are hideously addictive, and that too many children are getting their hands on them. But what we need is better enforcement of the laws and regulations that already exist, rather than non-evidence based crackdowns.
The industry itself has called for all vape retailers to be licensed. This sounds like a sensible step to stop illegal products being sold in shops. Local police should be clamping down on shops that are selling the devices to children.
What we don’t need is moral panic and knee-jerk regulation and bans. Say no to the nanny state, and yes to basic law enforcement.