Smoke & Mirrors: Vaping and the ‘normalisation’ debate

Smoke & Mirrors: Vaping and the ‘normalisation’ debate

Joshua Lambkin

Pagefield’s resident libertarian, Josh Lambkin takes a look at the recent developments in the vaping debate and finds them deeply troubling. 

As a strong believer in both personal freedom and as one who dabbles in the mysterious art of “vaping”, I have found the recent debate on e-cigarettes troubling. But yesterday’s announcement by the Welsh Assembly to ban vaping in public spaces under a new Public Health Bill is a new low.

Not only are numerous public health organisations opposed to this move, but this has all of the hallmarks of a knee-jerk, illiberal and ill-thought-through piece of legislation.

As a nascent but rapidly growing phenomenon in the UK, vaping has been subject to increasing scrutiny from health officials – and rightly so. But many organisations and experts also accept that we simply do not know enough about it to assess its relative merits and dangers.  There have been no comprehensive or longitudinal studies into the effects of vaping on personal health.

The fact that this has not deterred ministers in Wales from pushing through legislation is, for me, the most striking element of the whole debate.

But on closer inspection, I can understand why the absence of any empirical evidence was not a problem for the Welsh Assembly: the debate wasn’t even about public health per se – it focussed on the rather bizarre concept of “normalisation”. The crux of the argument is that allowing vaping to become widespread would “normalise” smoking and in so doing make youngsters and vulnerable people think it was okay to smoke. This would – allegedly – undo all the significant achievements of the smoking ban.

To my mind, this argument relies on two key and wrong-headed assumptions.

The first is that there is evidence of this so called normalisation process – something which Cancer Research UK strongly denies, saying in a recent statement that there is “no evidence of normalisation”. Do we really find ourselves in a situation where law-makers want to move away from evidence based public policy and legislation? This is surely a retrograde step.

The second assumption – and rather more profound in its consequences – is that the role of government is to use legislation to actually influence the way people think. Putting aside the obvious associations with the “Thought Police”, I think this sets a serious legislative precedent. Are we really saying that a Government should have the power to ban something because of what it might allow people to think? And if so, will there be a time when we legislate against people who eat unhealthy foods in front of children or drive environmentally rapacious cars down a public high-street?

All of this represents some of most illiberal thinking in British public policy and I hope people find the courage to resist it. If the Welsh Government really thinks this proposal is a good idea, then I’ll smoke what they’re smoking.