Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, Big Government have one thing in common.......

Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, Big Government have one thing in common.......

by Alex Massie
article from Tuesday 18, June, 2013

IMAGINE THERE was a widely consumed product that, however enjoyable, was undeniably associated with diseases that might kill as many as one in three of those who consumed it regularly. Then imagine an alternative product that enjoyed many of the advantages of the first product but was not in any significant way known to share any of its disadvantages. You might think this would be welcomed and everyone would recommend switching from the first of these products - the one that might well kill you - to the second, the one that will not.

Well, you might think that. But you would be wrong. No wonder despair occasionally seems the most sensible response of all. There are times when public life in this country is throttled by so much stupidity that there's no room left for even a modicum of hope. On this occasion, the strange case of electronic cigarettes is the - perhaps unlikely - cause of this gloomy thought.

Last week the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency ruled that so-called e-cigarettes should be treated - and therefore required to be licensed - as medical products from 2016 onwards. As is so often the case in matters of so-called public health, the true motivation of health "campaigners" has little to do with well-meaning, if often infuriating, paternalism but is instead concerned with something much simpler: power. Indeed, the backlash against e-cigarettes is a reminder that much of the public health lobby is less interested in tobacco than it is in control.

A reasonable person might conclude that a nicotine-delivery system that removes the great majority of the health hazards associated with smoking tobacco would be considered a welcome development. Such a reasonable person would be wrong.

Electronic cigarettes may bear a cursory resemblance to traditional cigarettes but the products are related only in the sense that they each deliver nicotine to the consumer. My own limited experience of e-cigarettes is that they are disappointingly bland but as a contented customer of Philip Morris for more than half my life, I'm accustomed to enjoying the taste of tobacco as well as the nicotine it contains. Nevertheless, many others think differently. It is believed there are as many as 1.3 million users of e-cigarettes in the United Kingdom.

Despite the fact that e-cigarettes have been banned in other countries, no evidence has been produced that suggests they are a significant health hazard. Rather than inhaling a pretty toxic cocktail of elements, e-cigarettes are a simple battery-powered nicotine-delivery system. And in place of tobacco smoke, users exhale only water vapour. Indeed, e-cigarette "smokers" actually consider themselves "vapers".

No wonder Big Tobacco is happy to see e-cigarettes strangled as near to birth as possible. No wonder Big Pharma fears that e-cigarettes might become a more useful tool for weaning smokers off tobacco than any of Pharma's own expensive - but often ineffective - products. The EU, which is also considering treating electronic cigarettes as medicines, and the UK government seem determined to side with powerful industry lobbies at the expense of the consumer. Fancy that!

Not that the poor consumer has a chance anyway. I'm not in the habit of expecting too much from Trade Union officials so I was not surprised to learn recently that Frances O'Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, favours banning the use of e-cigarettes at work because "no-one should be using e-cigarettes at work in an attempt to get round the smoking ban".

Similarly, no American citizen should be going to New Zealand in an attempt to get round the ban on travelling to Cuba. Or, if you prefer, his is like saying the playing of paintball should be banned for fear that its popularity will persuade people with no great interest in paintball that they should (somehow) purchase real guns and embark on a killing spree in their nearest shopping centre.

Not that the TUC are alone. Any number of organisations have decided to ban the use of electronic cigarettes on their premises. That is their prerogative but the reasons for doing so are generally cock-eyed. Scotrail, for instance, think permitting e-cigarettes would persuade people that smoking "real" cigarettes is also allowed. Other organisations worry that it is too difficult for their staff to differentiate between water vapour and tobacco smoke so everything must be banned. Perhaps they could try employing more perceptive staff?

No-one outwith government, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and the public health lobby seriously considers electronic cigarettes a medicinal product. But treating them as such will inevitably increase costs and harm consumer interests. According to the MHRA, however, regulation is required "to make these products safer and more effective to reduce the harms of smoking". Quite how you "reduce the harms of smoking" by making it more expensive and difficult to develop and market alternatives to tobacco must, alas, remain a mystery.

But this is all too typical of a worldview which suspects the people cannot possibly be trusted to make their own choices. Electronic cigarettes may bear a superficial resemblance to traditional cigarettes but the resemblance ends with surface appearances. Banning the use of products that replace tobacco consumption is a queer way of reducing tobacco consumption.

But that is the cockamamie logic of the present situation. Whatever next?

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