Better Living Through Electricity

Who’d have thought it. A smoking cessation treatment that actually works. Everywhere I go, I see people smoking e-cigarettes. In offices, on buses, in bars, people say to me: ‘Hey, baby, let’s vape.’ Okay, no one says that. I’m trying to create a hook to hang the post on. But electronic cigarettes do seem really popular these days. Even Martin Amis smokes them. And it won’t surprise you to learn that, in this as in all fashionable trends, I was a forerunner. The last time I was unemployed I smoked electronic cigarettes to save money. The device surprised me – you got some of the flavour and killed some of the craving, unlike with patches, gum, hypnosis or any of the other useless junk on the anti-smoking market. And it doesn’t actually kill you. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I got another job and was able to return to my evil, expensive habit of Camel Blue.

Some people disagree. In fact there are public health activists who see electronic cigarettes as a ‘stalking horse’ for Big Tobacco. Here’s Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:

‘My view at the moment is that these are things that have been around since the 1960s and people had not paid attention to them. Then suddenly the tobacco industry got interested,’ he said. He is alarmed to see celebrities such as Lily Allen vaping and an advert for e-cigarettes broadcast during Downton Abbey. More recently, the Netflix remake of House of Cards featured Kevin Spacey as US vice-president Frank Underwood substituting an e-cigarette for tobacco. ‘Addiction without the consequences,’ remarks Underwood.

‘The advertisements they are using are almost identical to the ones the tobacco industry used historically,’ said McKee, who believes this is about the rehabilitation of cigarettes.

‘The smoking ban [in public places] has been self-enforcing,’ he said. But steam rising from an e-cigarette can look very like smoke rising from an old-style fag. Other drinkers in pubs will be less and less likely to intervene once they’ve made that mistake a couple of times, he believes.

McKee acknowledges that a lot of people in public health say e-cigarettes are much safer than tobacco. ‘Absolutely, but that is not the issue here,’ he said. ‘They are missing the point.’

There you have it. I do think however that you need to have a fairly uneventful life to be worried about digital smoking. It seems purely from my own experience that outside of Stephen King’s fictional ‘Quitters’ Inc’, which has a 98% success rate, electronic smokes are the best way to kick a lethal habit. In the absence of smoking cessation programmes run by evil Mafia wizards we have to make compromises. But some people feel uncomfortable with Frank Underwood’s idea of addiction without consequences. For some people, all life’s pleasures should be guilty, or else.

Maybe one day someone will invent a digital cigarette that has all the flavour and satisfaction of the real thing, but carries absolutely no risk. And why stop there. Why not an electronic drink that gives the fluent pleasure of good alcohol without the potential risk to liver, lights, lungs, dignity and sexuality. Who knows what the magnificent young men and women of science will come up with next. In the meantime, I keep my vigil.


Would Anne Sexton look significantly less cool with a machine cigarette? We’ll never know


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