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Vaping Supported on the BBC

A balanced documentary adds weight an ecigs-based harm reduction approach

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“I think they have a great potential to save millions of lives over the next 20-30yrs.” The sound bite introduces BBC’s Horizon program, confirming vaping’s place in mainstream culture. The documentary covered key areas of the electronic cigarette debate and leaves a general feeling that, if not won, the harm reduction argument is certainly winning converts in the UK.

It can’t have been easy to decide where to balance opinion on such a hotly contested subject. As Michael Mosley said: “The experts are bitterly divided.” He is a man who hates smoking, whose wife works as a GP and doesn’t want him to become a “poster-boy for vaping”, and who is prepared to smoke and vape as part of the study.

Critics might knock him for only dipping his toe in the water but, as alluded to in the show, how many vapes has Martin McKee had? Count the number of cigarettes Stanton Glantz has smoked as part of a physiological study. It is to Mosley’s credit that he undertook to involve himself with a product he believed to be highly addictive. No study has been carried on looking at the effects of vaping on a healthy non-vaper/smoker.

“That was really rank. This is not what happens in the movies,” he spluttered through hacking coughs. Toxins coursed into his system, Mosley’s blood pressure and heart rate soared and he reminded the audience that at least half of the UK’s current 10-million smokers are set for a smoking-related premature death. “But the effects are quite pleasant. I feel buzzy. I think I get it, I get why people smoke.”

To answer questions about vaping’s efficacy and impact, four groups are made up from 26 hardened smokers. “Hard-core,” they called them, each and every one desperately seeking to quit having failed in previous attempts. The money wasted, the relations who’d died, the influence over their children – or even diagnosed with cancer themselves – none of it mattered because they simply couldn’t make a quit attempt last.

The volunteers embarked on a new journey, a fresh start, a future laced with optimism...except for those told to go cold turkey or consigned to four more weeks of cigarettes. Their sense of disappointment was palpable. We live in a time where people want a pill to lose weight, not exercise and diet, and where smokers appear to want someone else to provide them with easy solutions to help them leave their habit.

But then that is exactly what vaping used to be.

“When ecigs came on the market many countries prohibited their use,” said Ann McNeill before Robert West continued: “Robert West: “You look at some of those countries and they’re doing practically nothing about tobacco control, and yet they’re banning e-cigarettes, and you think: why?”

The program didn’t touch on how the British implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive, it’s a subject beyond answering whether ecigs are good or bad. Nobody in the NRT group punched the air to discover they would be using traditional methods for a month because the products don’t elicit such emotion. “Yey,” whooped one the vaping-group subjects. “I think I’ll be able to do it because it’s possibly the easiest way.”

As we dipped into the arguments along our televisual journey, we discovered that British American Tobacco (BAT) is now trying to be one of the good guys. “Our traditional products are really dangerous and no one should use them ever,” is something their head of R&D didn’t say. He didn’t need to; his lovely displays of toxin levels did it for him. While one appeared to be a multi-coloured plan of a hiking holiday to Hell, the vaping alternative resembled a leisurely stroll into town.

“But then BAT would say that wouldn’t they,” are the words we didn’t hear Martin McKee spit out. But then BAT would say that wouldn’t they? They would tell us there’s negligible difference between non-smoking and vaping when it comes to a blood vessel’s cell’s ability to repair itself. They’d tell us that because their future lies with the new generation of non-combusting products. It doesn’t mean vaping isn’t far better in this respect, but you can appreciate why some might struggle to accept their stance.

BAT is keen to shift away from their old product because of the baggage they carry. Executives would have been slapping themselves when their poster-boy for smoking appeared. Roland has been diagnosed with smoking-related cancer and (despite the protestations of his family and doctors) he can’t quit the tabs. He was in the vaping study group but hankered for his yellow-stained fingers and fusty clothing. He was a man that symbolised what tobacco companies mean to the rest of society, a shadow on the lung of the program.

One of the ecig users failed to quit smoking and it didn’t stretch the imagination much to guess who. While vapers might be keen to see nothing but positivity for the new technology, it’s impossible to divest ourselves of the history. Where we see choice, enjoyment and a safer future, health campaigners will always see people like Roland.

A reduction of toxins and improvements to lung function carry mixed weight in this contested political arena. For every Robert West saying: “Nicotine in your system is not necessarily particularly harmful to your health. It doesn’t seem to be carcinogenic,” there will be a Phillip Banfield stating: “Nicotine has been associated with cells behaving in abnormal manners and leading to premature cell death.”

For every vaper who saw the Horizon episode as positive there will be someone wishing Mosley had hidden away the news that macrophage presence was identified at higher levels in his sputum. Temporary rises in nitric oxide levels means nothing in the short term for those using vaping as a means to quit – so too their choice of juice, be it tested with a dry-burning CE4 atomiser or not. But for those vaping out of enjoyment for the longer term there are questions here: exactly how much do you want to know? How informed do you want you choice to be? Isn’t this our dilemma? On one hand it is argued that ecigs are a route out of smoking but on the other some use it to never leave nicotine, to hold that aspect of the smoking that prevented them from quitting in the first place.

There are no correct answers; there is only the debate. It’s a dialogue where Mosley began on the outside as a sceptic and finished his journey believing all smokers should give vaping a go: “This could transform the world’s health.”

Why not share your opinion about the show in the threads on the POTV forum? “E-Cigarettes: Miracle or Menace?” can be watched now on iPlayer:


Photo Credit:

  • Screenshots taken from the Horizon episode online.

Dave Cross avatar

Dave Cross

Journalist at POTV
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Dave is a freelance writer; with articles on music, motorbikes, football, pop-science, vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Sounds, Melody Maker, UBG, AWoL, Bike, When Saturday Comes, Vape News Magazine, and syndicated across the Johnston Press group. He was published in an anthology of “Greatest Football Writing”, but still believes this was a mistake. Dave contributes sketches to comedy shows and used to co-host a radio sketch show. He’s worked with numerous vape companies to develop content for their websites.

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