The controversy over the recent plans to advertise e-cigarettes on TV inspires an almost transcendent admixture of curiosity and tedium. On the one side, there’s always the hope that with changes in technology and regulations, there will be accompanying changes in viewpoint. Unfortunately, this is where the tedium kicks in.
When it comes to smoking, whether it’s e-cigs or the real thing, there is an overwhelmingly strict attitude on the part of the government. While I do have sympathy with the smoking ban in indoor public places, as it’s only right that people should be able to choose whether they want to be around smoke, the other anti-smoking propaganda never fails to make me smile. On every fag packet, you get a grotesque image and/or a fascinating list of statistics; ‘6mg tar, 0.5mg nicotine, 7mg carbon monoxide’ – Marlboro, for example. The mottoes are perhaps the most insightful, describing loss of virility or fertility, or lung/throat/tongue/skin/teeth damage.
As someone who smokes only occasionally, ie usually less than once a week, my favourites are the somewhat gentler ‘smoking is highly addictive, don’t start’ and ‘smoking seriously harms you and others around you’, which always makes me wonder: ‘what if I’m not smoking seriously? What if it’s just for fun?’. Perhaps, the humour is hard to detect in this horror; the point here is that no one nowadays smokes even a single cigarette, or even takes a single drag of one, without knowing that it’s gravely bad for them. There are no illusions about this. In fact, the element of danger is the only thing in our present culture that can make smoking even vaguely sexy. By contrast, the attempts at allure in ads for ‘healthier’, Sonic-Screwdriver-sleek e-cigs are utterly futile.
Another factor working against the spread of smoking, saddening though it is in a way, is that even the glamour has been lost. Occasionally, as hinted earlier, it can be achieved, but nowadays, most people who smoke do so with no style whatsoever; gone are the days when Oscar Wilde used the curling greyish coils to add atmosphere to his after-dinner stories, or Audrey Hepburn posed with that long cigarette holder. Few, surely, are inspired by the visual example of smokers today? Or perhaps they are. If so, this reflects a fall in aesthetic standards of taste, while being of supreme importance, right now this consideration is irrelevant. What is of salient relevance, however, is that the same concerns which prohibit smoking real cigarettes are dominating the debates over e-cigarettes too. The government temperament described above has been demonstrated by the Committee of Advertising Practice. While sanctioning the adverts, it has stated that they must not: be “likely to appeal particularly to people under 18, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture”; “encourage non-smokers to use e-cigarettes;” claim e-cigarettes are “safer” or “healthier” than smoking tobacco; or make any health claims without approval from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. With the exception of the last two requirements, after all, we don’t know the effects of e-cigs. The assumption of their argument is the same as it is for the influence of violent video games, or, looking further back, ‘immoral’ or ‘pornographic’ novels: if people are exposed to ideas such as these, they will blindly follow the example they present. We’ll have copulation/mass murder and, err, smoking, in the streets! If people see others smoking e-cigarettes on TV, they themselves will immediately go and start vaping.
Even if we consider the accompanying speech in the ads, this is a complete non sequitur. Enough people smoke as it is, yet walking through the streets and witnessing this doesn’t turn the masses into smokers. Neither does hearing smoking praised produce smokers. Hearing how e-cigarettes may have helped some people to wean themselves off real fags will not encourage everyone to try the same approach, though it is notable that the target market for e-cigs is existing smokers, rather than nonsmokers. In all these cases, the factors informing and determining people’s decisions are too varied and complex. If smokers want to take the unknown risks of e-cigs because they may be healthier, then they should be able to do so, just as anyone should be able to smoke if they so desire. In both cases, they will pay some kind of price, but regulations on adverts, or pressure from the government to conform and abstain, will have no effect on how people behave. Unless, that is, it causes them to exhale the bluish plumes defiantly in the martinets’ faces.