The Observer magazine recently shared its view on vaping. The editorial is anonymous. That’s understandable; I wouldn’t want to attach my name to it, either.
The thrust of the article is a call for stricter regulations. The argument is simple and familiar. In a nutshell, the World Health Organization claims that vaping isn’t 100% safe, so we should strangle the life out of the industry.
There is a lot wrong with this article. Firstly, I suspect it’s been written by someone who hasn’t put much thought into the subject. Or all that much research. And it shows.
The arguments they present are flimsy and sophomoric. It appeals to the authority of scientific bodies, like the WHO, when it suits them but then views Public Health England’s findings with the utmost suspicion.
Turning up your nose at a UK government health body in favour of the World Health Organization is a curious position to take. The Observer that I read as a younger man would have taken a keen interest in the fact that Micheal Bloomberg has given the WHO over $1 billion to promote anti-smoking legislation. The 2022 vintage can’t be bothered.
Bloomberg is famed for his puritanical and paternalistic stance on health issues. His influence — literal and monetary — can be felt all over the WHOs stance on vaping. Watching journalists become inadvertent mouthpieces for his agenda is depressing.
As the excellent writer Micheal Gunther pointed out, attempts to get Bloomberg to engage on evidence that counters his ideological positions on vaping have been unsuccessful. An open letter signed by a raft of professors and doctors was ignored. Bloomberg, as the author suggests, isn’t interested in the data.
Another issue with the article is that it claims:
“There is also evidence that it can act as a gateway to smoking for young people who have never smoked.”
It links to a WHO article without evidence of the sort. As we pointed out in a recent article on the ASH Youth Vaping Survey, if vaping is a gateway to smoking tobacco, then why are smoking rates going down? Vaping rates are rising; if it was a gateway, we should see smoking rates climbing too. But we don’t.
Another problem I have with the Observer article is how they frame the debate. Again, this rhetoric can be seen across a lot of the media’s output on vaping.
The lens through which they are analysing vaping is as a smoking cessation tool. It makes no mention of harm reduction, which I will address further below.
The article says the WHO believes the evidence supporting vaping helping people quit smoking is “inconclusive”. Then, they scold the PHE for “overstating” vaping’s ability to help people quit.
However, trial after trial has shown it helps people quit. It’s especially useful for people who have unsuccessfully tried to stop smoking with gum or patches. Will it help 100% of people quit? No, of course not. But when has that ever been the bar for any cessation tool?
Again, let’s look at the data. Since e-cigarettes first appeared in the UK, smoking rates have significantly reduced. In fact, vaping and smoking rates are negatively correlated. It’s almost as if people are using them to stop smoking.
Additionally, the journalist could just speak to vapers and ask them if they used to smoke cigarettes. All but a small percentage will say yes.
Most importantly, the Observer article fails to acknowledge vaping’s role in harm reduction. No matter how many public service announcements or anti-smoking posters you put up in GP waiting rooms, people are going to smoke. So we can be pragmatic about it and encourage safer alternatives, or we can pretend prohibition works.
I’m of the opinion that vaping has done far more for health in the UK than the many millions spent on anti-smoking messaging.
Come on, Observer. You can do better.