Some thoughts on smoking, vaping and individual freedom
Wednesday, October 31, 2018 at 18:07
Simon Clark

As I mentioned last week I was on Your Call (Five Live) with Nicky Campbell, speaking to the nation from a hotel in Turkey!

The discussion followed an interview on Five Live Breakfast with Peter Nixon, MD of Philip Morris UK, concerning the launch of the company's Hold My Light quit smoking campaign.

The transcript is now in and here are a few extracts.

On vaping and the tobacco companies

Nicky Campbell: Just on the vaping topic, Simon Clark, this is a real growth area for the tobacco companies, the vaping business, right? 

Simon Clark: Indeed, and I think people should welcome the fact that the tobacco companies are getting involved because they have the money to put in to research and development, they have the distribution networks. I mean, it’s very clear from the evidence that’s currently available, and Public Health England would back this up, that there is virtually no evidence that vaping is harmful. Therefore, if you want to get people to move to risk reduction products to get people off smoking, vaping seems to be the best way to do it.

I know a lot of people who have switched from smoking to vaping. They do it because vaping is more like the act of smoking. That’s why these new heat-not-burn products are coming on the market as well because smokers, generally speaking, are not interested in things like nicotine patches and gum, they want something that replicates the act of smoking. That’s why they’ve been quite successful. So I would say, if you’re interested in harm reduction or public health, you should actually be welcoming the tobacco companies getting involved in this area.

On pleasure

SC: Look, what we have to accept is that, in life, people want to get pleasure from doing things. There's a reason why there are still over seven million smokers in this country and that's because many of them enjoy smoking, they get pleasure from smoking. Now the same thing is true of vaping. A great number of people get pleasure from it and all these attacks on smoking, these attacks on vaping, are actually an attack on pleasure. We all get through life in different ways. Some people get pleasure or comfort from smoking, the same is true of vaping. A lot of people want to switch to vaping because whatever you say ...

NC: It's a gateway drug to smoking.

SC: Oh nonsense.

NC: There's more and more evidence of that. A 2014 study in the New England Journal of Medicine ...

SC: There have been thousands of studies into vaping. There's very, very little [evidence] that it's a gateway to tobacco so I think we can basically write that off. But the point is, if people choose to vape for pleasure they should be allowed to do so as long as they don't inconvenience other people.

On mental health issues and the 'benefits' of smoking

Caller: When people come off tobacco there are mental health issues ...

NC: That’s an interesting point, Simon. 

SC: It is, absolutely. There’s a lot of talk about banning smoking in mental health units and again I think that would be completely wrong for a number of reasons, partly because smoking does give some people a sense of autonomy and if you’re put into a mental health unit you feel a loss of autonomy and smoking is one of the few ways you retain your independence, so simply to ban it completely can actually have a far worse adverse affect, so we’ve got to be very careful about going down these routes.

I mean, there’s talk about what more can we do to drive smoking rates down. Well I would say we certainly don’t need any more regulations and no more legislation. We’d had enough of that over the last ten or 15 years. The reality is that over the last four or five years smoking rates have actually dropped quite substantially in the UK and that’s largely because people have voluntarily gone across to vaping.

Obviously the price has had some impact but I think that has driven a lot of people to the black market and people often buy their cigarettes abroad, but people have voluntarily gone to vaping and that is an approach that we have to encourage because we can’t force people to give up a legal product. It makes me laugh when last week, for example, there was all this talk of legalising cannabis in Canada, and so we’re talking about legalising cannabis but at the same time cracking down on smoking and trying to eradicate smoking from society, so there's no consistency there ...

NC: But you can smoke cannabis without mixing it with tobacco ...

SC: That’s true but the basic point I’m making is that this shouldn’t be something where the government tries to force people ...

NC: But cannabis has health benefits. There are none with cigarettes ..

SC: But Nicky, for some people smoking does have health benefits. Listen to David Hockney, for example, who’s now in his eighties. He’s often said that smoking is good for his mental health. He says that in America a lot of his friends are on Prozac and all the rest of it. He’s not saying it’s good for his physical health, he’s saying it’s good for his mental health. Now if he thinks that’s the best way for him to get through life then that’s up to him. It’s not up to government or anti-smoking campaigners to wag their fingers at him and say ‘No, that’s the wrong thing to do.’ 

On individual freedom

NC: Simon Clark, last word to you in this particular section of the programme. Forest voice, friend of the smoker. Pro choice, as you say. Do you think things are still steamrollering in the wrong direction as far as you’re concerned, and crushing freedom in its path?

SC: Well, I think support for smokers is important. People often say to me, ‘Why on earth do you do this job of defending smoking and I say, ‘Well ...’

NC: You have a mortgage to pay ...

SC: [Laughs] How cynical of you, Nicky.

NC: [Laughs] 

SC: Look, the reality is, if you genuinely believe in individual freedom and you believe in personal responsibility and choice, then smoking is actually a very important issue to fight on because most people don’t smoke these days, a lot people dislike smoking which is even more reason to support it because if you don’t support smokers but you enjoy drinking alcohol, you enjoy fizzy drinks, you enjoy fatty food, you enjoy eating meat ...

NC: 'First they came for the smokers'. One of those, is it?

SC: Indeed, and going back to your previous caller, I do accept that smoking is an addiction, but it’s not an addiction that’s impossible to break, millions of people have given up smoking. But it is also a choice and it’s a lifestyle choice for a great many people and if people choose to smoke, if adults choose to smoke, that choice must be respected. 

You can listen to the full conservation here, including callers. My contribution starts at 10:40 and finishes at 35:55.

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