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.