TERRY PRONE: Obstinate anti-smoking lobby rejects science of safe alternatives

If the latest generation of tobacco industry managers make money by flogging something that doesn’t kill people, it’s somewhat surprising to find them being condemned for it. Wasn’t the objective to stop or prevent people from smoking, rather than further demonise the despicable?

It’s not quite up there with Proust’s madeleine, but the fact is that whenever I hear an American talk of “candy”, I get resentful. Candy means only one thing to me: sweet cigarettes. They came in tens, in a small packet that didn’t kill itself mimicking a real Players or box, but gave off a satisfying rattle. That’s because the “cigarettes” were made of hardened sugar, with a grey ring around the top to simulate the ashy bit, finished off with red where the ember glow would be on a real cigarette.

As sweets go, candy cigarettes were no great shakes. Signs on, when they were abolished, nobody came up with a different mould into which the white sweet ingredient could be poured in order to provide a substitute. Unlike chocolate, which is loved no matter what shape it turns up in, sweet cigarette candy was without merit, once it was without its original shape. Those of us who missed it did so because we’d had such fun sticking imitation fags between our first and second fingers and posing as if we were in the movies. I had a friend who would nibble the “unlit” end of the cigarette down to a stub and then make a big production out of pretending to light the next one in the packet by applying the red end of the stub to it and sucking so hard her cheeks collapsed inward. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure she was impersonating her mother, rather than Lauren Bacall, at the time, and I’m pretty sure also that the action she imitated caused, over time, and tragically not much time, the death of her Ma.

They stopped making sweet cigarettes a long time ago, and the chances of them returning to the market are between slim and none. I may be unique in my nostalgic defensiveness on their behalf, but come on: the idea that they pre-disposed kids to take up smoking was always a bit of a reach. A bit like the age-old notion that letting kids play with guns predisposes them to shoot people in adult life. It’s an idea that never goes away, despite the fact that, in my generation alone, hundreds of thousands of little boys and smaller numbers of little girls, shot each other with plastic Colts every chance they got, yet grew up to be respectable adults. Accountants. Actuaries, even. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of little boys and girls who “smoked” candy cigarettes did not go on to consume the real thing and of those who did, factors like having parents who smoke would have helped to cause their kids to take it up, whereas no scientific evidence has ever — to my knowledge — been produced that traces the cause of a smoker’s habit back to a childhood experience with candy cigarettes.

Roll forward to this year and, in the cigarette area, we have a relatively new product which contains no tobacco and doesn’t do the user any measurable harm, yet looks and behaves pretty much the way a cigarette does. This semi-permanent gadget is elegant to hold, and if the person holding it gives it a good suck, it will deliver a nicotine jolt, without any of the tobacco-related ill effects of the real thing. Not that users talk of giving their e-cigarettes a good suck. They call the determined inhalation of its steam “vaping”.

In theory, then, the e-cigarette is arguably the best thing to happen to smokers, and when the most tobacco-addicted human I know arrived into our office last year carrying one, not long after his heart surgery, it seemed nothing but good. He could still, to a certain extent, get his fix, but without doing further harm to his ticker. He was wildly enthusiastic about it, too, although that didn’t last. Three weeks later, he was back on the real thing, the e-cigarette discarded, which doesn’t make it a failure — this friend gives the impression of having been tobacco-addicted from birth — but puts it in line with a number of other products, including nicotine patches, which evoke huge initial enthusiasm from smokers desirous of quitting but which have at best a minor, if expensive, role to play in smoking cessation.

THE difference between the e-cigarette and those other products is that nobody comes out to fight with Nicorette (addictive though the chewing gum can be, and said addiction cost this writer dearly over a couple of years), whereas the e-cigarette gets attacked right, left and centre. At home, it was unexpectedly attacked a few months ago by the chief whip, Paul Kehoe, who usually spends his time making sure Government TDs vote when and how they’re supposed to vote. But out he came, giving out about the new non-smoking devices.

In the US, organisations like the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association want e-cigarettes to be subject to precisely the same stringent controls as apply to the real thing, because they see them as making smoking glamorous all over again. They would prefer the electronic version to be seen as being as evil/disgusting/ dangerous as the non-electronic original.

The e-cigarette, the way they see it, is not a legitimate, even healthy, substitute for a cigarette, but rather a deceitful invention designed to reintroduce smoking by the front door. In other words, the e-cigarette, if allowed to have its way with the general public, would keep reminding addicts who have quit of the wonders of tobacco, would keep reestablishing just how sophisticated a hand-accessory is something close to a cigarette, and would serve as a gateway drug, introducing non-smokers to the real thing in much the same way marijuana is believed to introduce consumers to hard drugs. (This may be a worrying future scenario, but right now, the pattern is the other way: smokers trying to break their habit using e-cigarettes as an exit route.) Another theory is that keeping quitters in the smoking zone, so to speak, is the equivalent of putting them in what the Catholic Church used to call “an occasion of sin” where they could be tempted back into smoking real tobacco again.

It has been suggested that another reason for the lack of enthusiasm for the new device is that in some cases, it may be produced by the tobacco industry. I don’t get this. The tobacco industry is arguably unparalleled in its villainy, aggressively peddling its wares for profit, long after they knew those wares killed one out of two of their users in the most horrible of ways. However, if the latest generation of tobacco industry managers make money by flogging something that doesn’t kill people, it’s somewhat surprising to find them being condemned for it. Wasn’t the objective to stop or prevent people from smoking, rather than further demonise the despicable? Interestingly, the head of the Schroeder Institute — an American anti-smoking body — had this to say, this week.

“The anti-smoking movement is so opposed to the idea of smoking it has transcended the science and become a moral crusade… there is an ideological mindset in which anything that looks like smoking is bad. That mindset has trounced the science.”


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