Clive Bates: the liberal argument for electronic cigarettes
Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 12:22
Simon Clark

Ten days ago Clive Bates, former director of ASH, posted a comment on this blog.

It was on a thread dated February 17 so it's unlikely you will have seen it.

The post was entitled Wanted: a consumer champion for e-cigarettes who is not anti-smoking. In it I wrote:

As a champion of consumer choice Forest is happy to support and defend the use of e-cigarettes (and other smokeless tobacco products).

My concern is that, media wise, a vacuum is developing that may be filled by e-cigarette spokesmen who are profoundly anti-smoking and no more tolerant of tobacco than ASH or the BMA.

That is why I view with caution the plaudits that have been showered on Clive Bates, the former director of ASH who has been remarkably vocal on the subject of e-cigarettes.

Not just a voice either. Putting words into action, Bates wrote to the Press Complaints Commission complaining about a laughable report headlined E-cigarette ‘can cause more harm than smoking’, experts say. (Significantly the article is no longer available online.)

I commend him for that but don't be fooled. Most public health campaigners who advocate the use of e-cigarettes regard them as a medicinal alternative to cigarettes and they will continue to bully and belittle smokers until they give up.

In response Clive has written:

Simon, you can accuse me of many things (and have) but you can't argue that I think of e-cigs as medicines. See my briefing: Are e-cigarettes medicines?.

And said the following in a letter to a government planning to ban them:

The ethics of a ban. There is a liberal argument that goes like this: if people want to sell them, people want to buy them, they are much less risky than cigarettes and they comply with norms of consumer protection – like being acceptably safe, working as intended (ie not faulty), and as-described – then what is the ethical basis for a ban on e-cigarettes?

Nicotine is a widely-used legal recreational drug that in itself is almost harmless, so why obstruct a much less dangerous way to take it with huge regulatory burdens that do not apply to cigarettes? When the state denies a smoker a product that could save their life, the state becomes complicit in the mortal consequences that follow from that decision.

There are no precedents in other areas of consumer protection or health policy and no ethical basis for banning a much safer alternative to the dominant high-risk tobacco-based nicotine products.

Thanks, that's pretty clear.

As an aside, I would add that I have always had a soft spot for Clive, even when he was director of ASH.

By all accounts some of his predecessors were humourless zealots driven by an ideological hatred of Big Tobacco and anyone who dared to challenge the new anti-smoking orthodoxy.

Many of today's tobacco control campaigners are cut from the same cloth. Sometimes their prohibitionist zeal is combined with an ego the size of an elephant and the result is a Doctor Who style monster with no redeeming features.

Clive was never like that. Unlike many people in public health he's had a varied career outside that cosseted industry. He's not obsessed to the point of lunacy by smoking or anything else.

Most important, he has a sense of humour.

Back in the day Forest produced a quarterly magazine called Free Choice. I introduced a tongue-in-cheek feature called 'What's My Vice?' and invited Clive to contribute.

To my surprise he accepted the challenge although his choice – Belgian beer – seemed a bit tame.

Today, after numerous trips to Brussels (with the occasional detour to Bruges and Antwerp), I understand the attraction and the potentially addictive nature of the product!

If I can find a copy of the article I'll publish it here.


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