“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
– H.L. Mencken
So on Saturday I got pointed to this article, which purports to tell us how “Big Vaping” is spreading cynical misinformation on behalf of the tobacco industry, presumably to hook a new generation of nicotine addicts or some other dire outcome. The article, frankly, sent my blood pressure through the roof. Hosted on Vox.com, a sort of internet rest home for people who’d like to be journalists but have the investigative abilities of a stunned whelk, it’s written by a talentless oxygen thief named Julia Belluz. Julia, apparently, is a health correspondent, although as she’s the health correspondent for Vox.com that’s about as impressive as saying she’s supreme ruler of her own underwear. She’s also, according to a claim on her Twitter profile, an “evidence enthusiast”. Well, actually, I’m not so sure about that. Because if she had any understanding of what evidence actually is she would not have written this festering turd of an article.
“Big Vaping” is nothing more than the latest in a series of imaginary hobgoblins the temperance movement, in its latest guise of “public health”, has conjured up to menace the populace with. The tobacco companies Belluz is so terrified of are a minor presence in the e-cigarette market. Their products are, without exception, obsolete technology that only makes the headlines because of who’s selling it. The real vaping industry is a host of small to medium firms who develop, export and sell devices and liquids. It’s a fiercely competitive industry that’s more or less structurally incapable of acting in concert to achieve a goal like the ones Belluz accuses it of having. The big cigalike manufacturers, tobacco-owned or not, actually support the sort of restrictive laws California and other places are imposing; the smaller, innovative companies who make second and third generation devices are bitterly opposed to them, for good reason.
Anyway, let’s look at one of the faces of “Big Vaping”. Me.
My name is Fergus Mason. I come from the West of Scotland and I’m 45 years old. For most of my adult life I was a soldier; then I spent two years in Kabul as a civilian contractor for NATO, before returning home to become a freelance writer. I started smoking when I was at university and never saw any particular reason to quit. After all I was fairly accustomed to things like bullets pinging off walls around me, or being woken by the sound of some suicidal idiot detonating himself and a Land Cruiser full of explosives outside the gate of where I worked. Even eating kebabs from Afghan street vendors was an interesting experience, sort of like Russian Roulette with diced lamb. If anything was going to kill me, I reasoned, it probably wasn’t going to be a cigarette. And when I came home in 2011 I just kept on smoking. Quitting, after 20-plus years, wasn’t exactly going to be easy and anyway I didn’t care.
Then, on 5 February 2013 – the day before my 43rd birthday – I woke up feeling rather unwell. I put it down to a hangover, drank some coffee and went to work as usual. I was soon struggling, though; instead of clearing, my head just seemed to become fuzzier as the day went on and I barely managed to write 400 words in six hours. When the dizzy spells and chest pains started I called a friend; I didn’t trust myself to drive by that point. When she arrived she took one look, bundled me into her car and took me to hospital.
As we pulled into the car park I had what doctors call a “sudden cardiac event”. The survival rate for SCEs is not very high – in fact it’s in the low single figures. I was rather lucky I had mine 50 yards from an ambulance whose crew were – rather ironically – standing around having a smoke break.
When I was released from hospital, after an excruciating week of blood tests, limp cheese and weak tea, it seemed that smoking might not be such a great idea in the future. I hadn’t lit up for a week but I knew what the relapse rate was like, so I decided to find an alternative. I had actually encountered electronic cigarettes before, in Kabul of all places, but they’d been pretty terrible. Now, however, I got a decent eGo kit from a local vape shop. And it worked! Within a few days I didn’t even miss smoking; I’d found something both safer and better. A few weeks later I upgraded to a Sigelei Zmax mod and that was that. I was, I decided, very firmly an ex-smoker.
Then, in about early May 2013, I found to my astonishment that the ever-idiotic EU and a loose alliance of health “advocates” were running a campaign to have e-cigarettes strictly regulated or banned. I couldn’t figure out why, because there certainly wasn’t any evidence to support their wild claims, but there it was; it was happening. And almost immediately I started doing what I could to fight back. Since then I’ve written to MPs and MEPs, retweeted thousands of messages countering the claims of the ANTZ, helped design leaflets and written blog posts. I was thrown off Wikipedia to the sound of (fraudulent) shrieks about me being a paid industry advocate. I’m blogging here now. And the industry is not paying me to do it.
Yes, I’ve taken money to write about e-cigs. I’m a freelance writer; I’ll take money to write about anything. The vast majority of what I do, however, is entirely voluntary. In fact it costs me money. Looking at my daily output figures I can tell when a particularly egregious newspaper story was released; my work rate drops off sharply for a day or two as I switch attention to writing comments, emailing the editor and the journalist responsible or making whatever other response I can come up with. This site is paid for out of my own pocket. If I didn’t do vaping advocacy I would be slightly better off. The same goes for the NotBlowingSmoke campaign that Julia Belluz has her sensible panties in such a twist about; despite the wild allegations being made by acolytes of Stanton Glantz it isn’t financed by industry. In fact it’s paid for and run by a friend of mine, Stefan Didak. Stefan is an ordinary guy with a real job, and in his spare time he’d much rather be wrapping himself around beer and cheeseburgers in some San Francisco bar than fighting a ruthless and well-funded opponent like the California Department of Public Health.
But Stefan believes he has to fight, and I feel the same way. We have to fight for electronic cigarettes because they have saved our lives. The people we usually entrust to look after our wellbeing – the politicians and medical establishment – have either failed us or are actively trying to push us back to smoking. We can’t rely on them, so we have to do it ourselves. The opposition to anti-e-cig laws is not coming from a shadowy industrial cartel tied to the tobacco companies. It is coming from ordinary people like me, like Stefan, like Lorien Jollye and Sarah Jakes . It is coming from real public health experts like Clive Bates. If you’re looking for big funding and a network of powerful connections you’ll need to look at our opponents – Martin McKee, with his six-figure funding from nicotine gum maker Glaxo SmithKline, or notorious grant whore Stanton Glantz. Look at the EU politicians who voted for the vile Tobacco Products Directive – which despite its name is mainly an attack on e-cigs – in the face of the protesting scientists whose work they had distorted. But don’t look at us.
There is no “Big Vaping”. There is only us – vapers. Small people, small businesses, small resources. But we have a big cause, and we’re going to fight for it. And if you attack us – and yes, Julia, I’m looking at you – don’t start whining when we hit back.
This post was originally published on 31 March 2015