When foot meets bullet

  • 35

When foot meets bullet

Category : rants , vaping

So a couple of days ago an article appeared. Some vaping advocates thought it was a great piece of work. A somewhat larger number were less impressed. I’m with the second group. It may have been meant well, but the author could have spent his time more profitably doing something else. Practically anything else, in fact.

This article was all about arguments the author thinks vapers shouldn’t use, because in his opinion they’re “misleading” or even “total bullshit”.

I suppose he’s entitled to his opinion, but that’s all it is – his opinion. Does the fact he holds this opinion make his article a useful contribution to the debate? No, I don’t think it does. I think publishing the article to a high-profile blog, then tweeting about it, was an act of mind-blowing stupidity.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time deconstructing the author’s claims, because Dick Puddlecote has already done a splendid job of that; I’ll just pick up on a few points where I find them relevant. What I want to do is talk in more general terms about who we need to be getting the message out to, and what sort of message that needs to be.

The public are the priority

In my opinion, the most important people vapers need to be influencing are the general public. If we can get them – at least a solid majority of them – on our side, we’ll be in a pretty strong position when it comes to fighting off hostile legislation. If we don’t successfully get our message out to the public we’re basically screwed. We’ll just be another small, irate and slightly weird special interest group that nobody cares about, and if we’re in that position we might as well give up. Persuading ordinary people that vaping is a real alternative to smoking, and that it’s safe, has to be our number one priority.

Yes, safe. Vaping is safe – at least, as much as anything is safe. Sure, there’s probably some residual risk. I have no doubt that vaping means you’re at slightly more risk of some obscure disease than if you breathed only the freshest alpine air. But really, how high is that risk likely to be? Not very.

Propylene glycol is safe to inhale unless you’re one of the unlucky few who’s sensitive to it, and even then it’s not exactly Zyklon-B. Cigarette smoke contains hundreds – or thousands – of times as much diacetyl as e-cig vapour, and smoking has never been linked to popcorn lung. No, really. It hasn’t. You can certainly argue that smokers might have died of popcorn lung, but who do we know who makes wild, speculative claims about hypothetical dangers of vaping? If you find yourself using bullshit ANTZ arguments in your blog post, do us all a favour; hit delete and have a serious word with yourself.

Safe enough is safe enough

By any sane standard vaping is safe. Serious people with white coats and letters after their name say it’s as safe as drinking coffee, and frankly you have to be a bit of a cock to think coffee is dangerous. Vaping is safe. The problem is, the public don’t believe that.

Unfortunately the public are, by and large, not scientifically minded. They don’t really understand that science is tentative. Creationists and anti-vaccine lunatics exploit that all the time, and ANTZ use exactly the same tactics. They take the systematic uncertainty that’s inherent in the scientific method and portray it as a genuine doubt, something that we should really worry about. Time after time the public fall for it, and most scientists have a very hard time countering the bullshit. They make reasoned, nuanced arguments that would carry the day in any scientific discussion, but huge chunks of the public ignore them and soak up the big, bold doubts spread by the loons.

When it comes to countering these big, bold doubts we have a choice. We can park ourselves on the moral high ground and make reasoned, nuanced arguments like the ones advocated in the article. Then we can spend the rest of our lives complaining that the public didn’t listen to us, because I can guarantee you, they won’t.

Our opponents like to scare people by implying that a global epidemic of vape cancer could be lurking a couple of decades down the road. And the article’s author just encourages them:

“We might be able to do so in 20 or 30 years, but right now we’re far from being able to honestly compare death rates.”

Awesome. Stan Glantz could have said that. We have enough ANTZ scaring people with purely hypothetical risks. Why make painful, pedantic statements that to the casual observer sound very like what the ANTZ are saying?

Instead of further muddying the waters by dumping in a bucket of vagueness we could stick with something big and bold of our own, like Agent Ania’s excellent cartoon:


Except we can’t do that anymore, because the ANTZ have just been given an in-depth, superficially persuasive and oh so nuanced demonstration of how to attack it. And that’s what really annoys me about the article. Yes, if you want to descend into useless pedantry all the “misleading arguments” it complains about can be attacked. But they are all, in broad terms, true. E-liquid does contain four ingredients, compared to hundreds in a cigarette. All those ingredients are generally recognised as safe. Nobody has died from vaping. Smoking hasn’t been linked to popcorn lung. And so on.

Where was the problem?

If these arguments were as much of a liability as the article claims, rest assured the ANTZ would have attacked them long ago. They haven’t, because it would have backfired on them spectacularly. What tobacco controller wants to make a big fuss about the gravedigger cartoon when, in the end, they’re just going to have to admit that the number of deaths attributable to vaping is indeed zero? Who wants to be the clown yelling triumphantly, “Aha! You said there was 750 times as much diacetyl in cigarettes but really it’s only 240 times as much!”?

These arguments may not be pedant-proof, but they are effective. They are simple, easily grasped and carry a positive message. Unfortunately they’re now all compromised, because they can be dismissed with an airy, “Oh, even vaping advocates say that’s not true.” We have, essentially, just thrown away some reliable and effective weapons – in exchange for what? A warm glow of sanctimony?

The suggested arguments added to the article in an effort to temper its initial relentless negativity might be appropriate for a discussion with public health activists, but that’s a sideshow at best. The likes of ASH will use vaping when it suits them, and abandon us when it doesn’t. Where was their condemnation of Pembrokeshire’s decision to ban vaping on a beach? Yeah, I didn’t hear it either. Even when they do decide to take our side they’re of limited use. Politicians only listen to them when it’s convenient. ASH Wales spoke out against Drakeford’s plan to ban vaping in public places; Drakeford simply tuned them out and started quoting the California Department of Public Health instead. There’s no shortage of tobacco control rent-a-gobs, so legislators don’t need to pay attention to the ones who’re not on-message.

Talking to pressure groups can be somewhat useful as long as we don’t start thinking they’re our friends, but the first priority has to be winning over the public. If that means saying things ASH don’t like, so be it; the public are more important than ASH. If we want to preserve our freedom to vape we need to convince the ordinary man or woman in the street, and to do that we need to have clear, persuasive, hard-hitting points. That’s going to be pretty difficult if some on our own side insist on trashing them.

Apply the safety catch, place the weapon on the ground and stand back from the firing point. Because you’ve just put a bullet in our foot.

  • Thank you Fergus.

  • Davi Maree

    It’s really interesting Fergus that this has caused such a shit fight among vapers. The thing for me is that I agree with some of Lee Johnson’s points but not all of them. I also agree that many of the arguments could be better worded and therefore improved.

    Isn’t it the case that we should all be able to read it and contribute to what might be better arguments?

    Dave Dorn has been advocating that vaping is NOT a quit smoking aid, just a more enjoyable way of replacing smoking. (Hope I got the words right). For me though, as a sick person smoking, vaping is definitely a stop smoking aid for me and has saved my health.

    Does that make Dave or me wrong. NO. It merely says people have different points of view and I can certainly see that vaping is a much more enjoyable form of using nicotine now however my sole pupose for buying my first kit was to quit smoking. For others it is different.

    Equally, categorically saying PG is used in Asthma inhalers is wrong. But saying PG inhalation has been used in Lung Cancer Treatments and air purification is right. So why not educate the vaper advocate community that this is a better way of expressing any doubts about pg.

    It’s about education and making sure we are correct in what we say as far as possibe.

    The one graphic I will not shy away from is Agent Ania’s “Death” one. It is correct and does send a true message in my opinion.

    Can’t we just have an adult conversation about it?

    • Fergus Mason

      Some of the arguments could have been improved, but I really don’t think publicly trashing them was at all smart or necessary. For all the talk about it being great to score own goals in training, that’s not what he did. He blogged about it then tweeted it, and we KNOW that the ANTZ follow our tweets.

      • Davi Maree

        So basically you wanted his opinions hidden from public view regardless of whether they were right or wrong.

        Best they be work shopped in private or not said at all?

        Fergus, this doesn’t sound like you at all.

        • Fergus Mason

          He’s free to blog about whatever he wants. I am equally free to think – and say – that doing so was stupid.

          • Davi Maree

            Yes you are 🙂

          • David Mullen

            That’s freedom of speech;😊

        • Myk

          I know something that the majority (if not all) eliquid sellers do in the US that is illegal. I don’t write a blog about it and advertise it on Twitter. I don’t even post it on CASAA’s Facebook. I know the ANTZ read them. I would like to bring it up somewhere to let the businesses know but I don’t know where that would be. I’m not going to hand the ANTZ some weapons to use against vaping.

  • Myk

    Loved it.

  • jude

    Thank you for an elegant summation of this little controversy. I hoped I wouldn’t see it, but I think that I probably am, that thing human beings do, in any group, where you always get a few that seem to think they know better than everyone else, and set themselves up as “educators” of the apparently dull, stupid, or even dishonest (apparently vaper advocates that tell the truth in their own way), lessor beings.

    This is what I saw when I first read the blog that you’ve based this article on Fergus. I was somewhat surprised, but mostly really disappointed. Keep doing what you are doing Fergus, Agent Ania, Broony, and all those other wonderful advocates, you’re doing just fine as you are, you don’t need re-education, you don’t need “talking points” or pasturised arguments.

    • Broony Saint

      thank you Jude and thank you Fungus, I do love reading your articles

    • Jon

      Just in case you aren’t aware Jude, Agent Ania passed on last week.

      • Jon

        Apologies, just noticed the comment timings.

  • Rojeans

    Thanks Fergus.
    My thoughts at the time of reading the article/blog was that while dispatching the asthma inhaler myth, he’d actually stolen some of the ANTZ thunder. Your response is a wise counter argument and put things into a more balanced perspective. BTW one thing he could have added and that most already know (but sometimes forget when countering) is that nicotine inhalers, ie; Quickmist do in fact use PG as a carrier in addition to other more questionable additives, oh, and flavourings! 🙂

  • Tom Pruen

    I strongly disagree on a number of points.
    Lumping the most dangerous parts of e-liquid together and calling them flavourings is disingenuous at best – and if such a reductionist approach is desired why stop at 4? Two of the quoted ingredients also have a common category (as does the one missing from the list of 4, water) so why not go for 3 – solvents, nicotine and flavourings. It is no less dishonest than the list of 4, and reduces the list of named chemicals even further (which seems to be the apparent goal).
    As a point of argument, it suffers from being readily refutable – anyone with an analysis of an e-liquid in hand can produce a list of scary sounding chemicals, leaving anyone who has stated “only four things” looking like a bit of an idiot.

    Popcorn lung – the scale and variety of lung disease in smokers makes a differential diagnosis unlikely – why spend a few thousand on tests, when a diagnosis of COPD can be done with the stroke of a pen?
    Conversely, why put an ingredient which is, on the basis of quite good evidence, dangerous to inhale in a product designed to be inhaled? It’s not possible to defend that as a good idea, and denying that it is a problem invites regulators to interfere.

    No deaths from e-cigs? There’s at least one accidental and one deliberate e-liquid related fatality. Imagine going to a meeting to advocate for e-cigs, stating that there have been no deaths, and having an anti come back with “Look! dead child!, Think of the children”.

    A number of these overly simplistic and facile ‘debating’ points suffer from the weakness of easy and quite devastating counter arguments, so who is putting whose foot in the firing line here?

    • Dick_Puddlecote

      Who’s talking about going to a meeting?

      • Tom Pruen

        Hell, doesn’t even have to be that complex – the same points apply in twitter, or any form of communication – if your argument can be undermined in a single accurate point – is it worth making?
        If your point can be refuted with a single link in twitter (or a quick smartphone search in the pub), you need better points, not simpler ones.

    • Myk

      Why spend a few thousand in tests (probably more like tens of thousands)? Because the proper treatment relies on proper diagnosis. Why spend a few million losing a malpractice lawsuit because you didn’t do your job? “Sorry Advair didn’t treat your lung cancer, I assumed it was COPD” won’t go far before a judge. Any Dr who simply sees smoker and uses assumptions for their diagnosis wouldn’t be very profitable in the US. Speaking of profits, there’s the conspiracy reason for doing tests, the corporate medical complex you’re in requires it for you to keep your job.

      If I said I was waiting for someone to provide deaths from ecigs and an ANTZ brought up the accidental ingestion by a toddler I would own them. It obviously wasn’t an ecig. It obviously was gross negligence. And if we can’t have eliquid because it’s too dangerous we need to rid the world of detergent, bleach, cleaners and pesticides. And if we’re going to ban things for improper use or ability to be used in a suicide we’d all need to be stored in a padded cell wearing a self-hug jacket.

  • Jean Granville

    “Who wants to be the clown yelling triumphantly, “Aha! You said there was 750 times as much diacetyl in cigarettes but really it’s only 240 times as much!”?”

    Precisely. That’s why the paper you are criticizing will not, in the end, provide anti-vapers with any usable argument.

    • jude

      Really? What do you think ANTZ are doing on a daily basis? How much formaldehyde in vapour ? ANTZ scream this crap from the rooftops, they lie constantly about vaping, they could care less if they look like “clowns” , if they were concerned about how they look, we wouldn’t hear the claims of “popcorn lung”, and other totally ridiculous claims being made by ANTZ and those with a vested interest in people continuing to smoke.

      The original blog basically tells vaping advocates that they should only say what is pedantically exactly correct to the letter of the law, according to the ANTZ framing of the argument, using the language that the ANTZ have approved. This mean vaping advocates are always reactive, (thank you Deb Downs), and never proactive, because we are wasting time trying to make sure every comment we make about vaping, passes the standards set by ANTZ , but standards that ANTZ ignore and think they are above following.

  • Liam Bryan

    Interesting blog, thanks. I do have sympathies with both sides – which is probably a result of my muddled thinking. The original blog’s points are broadly true in my view and Fergus’ points also have power. I question two things though:
    1) Is our audience for this debate the public? Isn’t it regulators?
    2) Isn’t the post above a little patronising to “the public” (which are after all, us)?

    I’m confident that there is a common ground, there is clearly one in our aims – lets find one for our tactics!

    • Dick_Puddlecote

      I think the original blog was smug, condescending and insulting. As far as the debate, if you’re talking to regulators they will want deep science and guarded statements, the public just want to get an overview. Saying “try this e-cig, it has loads of chemicals in it and still might kill you” isn’t going to do much good.

      • Liam Bryan

        Well yes, but no-one would. We’d all agree on “try this, it’s much safer”, wouldn’t we? (although I wouldn’t even bother, I’d just say I think they’re more enjoyable)

    • jude

      I don’t have an “audience” I just have other ordinary people that I talk to about vaping. Who are these “regulators” that are supposed to be “our” audience?

      What is the “common ground” you speak of? In Australia those with the power to make laws about vaping, just ignore most advocates, and supporters, and only listen to the liars in the tobacco control industry, pharma companies, and fear for their precious tobacco taxes, lest they lose all that lovely money.

  • Rok Klobucar

    “We might be able to do so in 20 or 30 years, but right now we’re far from being able to honestly compare death rates.”

    They are just afraid that vaping will cause more of a deaths than smoking… It’s honest conclusion.

    • Fergus Mason

      “They are just afraid that vaping will cause more of a deaths than smoking.”

      And how likely is that?

      • Rok Klobucar

        We don’t know because we don’t have long-term data on vaping and obviously we suck in science and in predictions from science according to ANTZ… We are just screwed for another 20 – 30 years until long-term data on vaping will be available and all we can do is just hoping for the best results… Until then ANTZ are free to saying all what they are saying… And they are very happy.

        • Myk

          So the key is to smoke for 20-30 years before the likelihood of disease from smoking, then switch to vaping giving yourself another 20-30 years.

        • Karyyl

          Your argument would only be valid if EITHER 1. Known carcinogens were found in vape in amounts that matter OR 2. Recently-invented chemicals were put in vape. Neither is true. The ANTZ love to imply that #2 is true, and I think the fact that they only IMPLY it shows they know better.

  • David Mullen

    One step forward,two steps backwards!😊

  • Infighting, probably somewhat necessary but should be kept to a minimum anyway. Add Snus to agentAnias excellent cartoon and presto, you add 75 million user years with not so much as a bump in healthstats from Sweden.

  • Roger Hall

    Lagging behind with this advocacy controversy, but you’re 100% correct Fergus on the fact that it’s the non smoking public that all advocates should focus on. Public opinion has this magical ability to lead politicians (after all popularity is their prime motive) in their decision making. Think back to Thatcher and the poll tax. As long as the general public accept TC bullshit and Public Health rhetoric then the politicians can and will ignore the minority who advocate vaping as being 95% or 99% safer. The figure doesn’t really matter. The 80% of non smokers will always numerically be more important to politicians, so upsetting the 20% minority, regardless of the scientific proof is simply collateral damage. One thing I do know is that the general public is passionate about the NHS, so advocates should be extolling the advantages of vaping in language that non smokers will also understand and clearly see the benefits of smoking. This slide demonstrates just how better off the NHS would be if smoking admissions were radically reduced, because vaping has replaced smoking. A good example of how vaping benefits the non smoking general public all of whom I believe value the NHS. Vaping helps the NHS which benefits everyone.


  • Jon

    Spot on Fergus.
    We have enough enemies without our ‘friends’ muddying the waters.
    Couldn’t have said it better myself!
    But that’s probably why I’m not a professional writer…

  • Jon

    Bloody hell… Didn’t notice this was from the original article. Just seen the comment dates. Well, still valid! 😉

  • Cracko Hatuey Kane

    I’m a former vaper. Ultimately, for me, the end game was to end my addiction to nicotine and the habits associated with smoking and vaping. I did tgis slowly and at my own pace and after about 4 years of vaping, I said goodbye. Throughout that time, very little of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate have been fair. This blog post is filled with opinion amd conjecture, but does little to outline the facts. Vapers are almost always as ignorant or ideologically driven as your standard affair conspiracy theorists. Many have also been as driven to inject sensationalism into the public sentiment that it only does us a disservice. The science always wins. It’s often an uphill battle and sometimes it takes a long time to implement change, but maintaining a culture of psuedoscience because it satiates your cognitive dissonance, does nothing but hurt. It makes us sound just like the tobacco lobby in the 70’s. Advocate for the science and let the science speak for itself.