I love teasing my friends who use e-cigarettes. There’s something intrinsically uncool about e-cigs – they’re gadgety, a bit silly-looking thanks to their chunkiness and the huge clouds of vapour they produce, and bring to mind the sort of middle aged geezer who hangs around CAMRA beer festivals with a beer checklist. I love to send my friend Dan photos of new vape shops that have silly names like “Vape Lords”, as if he loves vaping so much that he’ll be excited just to see that it exists. The “we get it, you vape” meme came about because vapers often will not shut up about it, which reminds some people of vegans or that guy who tells you he doesn’t even own a TV at every opportunity.
So I understand why people don’t care about vaping and public policy. If you’re not a smoker and haven’t experienced some of the costs of smoking in your own life – a relative dying young from lung cancer, say – it’s easy to just ignore it and laugh about the people who keep hammering on about it.
I was among that group until a few years ago, and thought that the issue was a minor one compared with the weightiest issues in public policy – tax, housing, immigration, Brexit. But nowadays, the more I’ve learned, the more I think that e-cigarettes and related products might be one of the easiest ways to improve people’s lives we have. And if public policy can make them better, and make people more likely to use them instead of smoking cigarettes, then it should be a major priority for people interested in improving human welfare.
Smoking is bad, but…
The first point to note is that smoking tobacco – that is, lighting it on fire and inhaling the smoke – is very harmful. On average, lifelong smokers seem to live for about ten years less than if they had not smoked, and they will be sick more often.
But it is also very enjoyable for many smokers, who judge the trade-offs to be worth it, perhaps because they like the taste or the nicotine. Though it’s important to make smokers aware of the harm that smoking does, most anti-smoking regulation is based on unproven assumptions about smokers’ rationality and ability to compare costs with benefits. I want smokers to be aware of the costs of smoking, and to make sure they bear the costs they impose on others.
But most taxes and anti-smoking regulations are designed to increase the cost of smoking, which unless they are systematically irrational (unproved) is welfare-reducing even if they manage to persuade smokers to stop smoking. In short: only individuals can decide if the pleasure of a lifetime of smoking is worth living for ten years less.
Many anti-smoking policies do not work very well even by their own standards. Taxes do, but indoor smoking bans, display bans, advertising bans and others all seem to do nothing to stop people taking up smoking (though they sometimes do lower smoking rates among current smokers). Plain packaging has been an abject failure in Australia, the only place that has had it long enough for us to measure. And, remember, most of them work by making smokers’ options worse and raising the costs of smoking, not by giving them a better alternative.
E-cigarettes do the job
If some, most or all of the enjoyment of smoking could be delivered with less or none of the harms, humanity would be in luck. Instead of stopping people from smoking by raising the costs of doing so, as most smoking taxes and regulations do, and lowering human welfare, we would be able to lower the number of people smoking (and dying young) while also raising human welfare.
This is the promise of e-cigarettes and other reduced risk tobacco products. E-cigs are much safer than cigarettes. The Public Health England review into them that concluded they were 95% safer was being highly cautious with that figure – the truth may be closer to 99% or 100% safer.
Voluntary uptake of e-cigs since they first came to market has been very rapid and large. Since about 2011, three million people (about 5.6% of the adult population of Britain) have taken them up – one vaper for every three smokers (15.8%, 7.6 million people, smoke cigarettes). Two million of these say that they have used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, and another half a million say they are in the process of doing so, though this number may be somewhat exaggerated as self-response surveys sometimes are.