Hume's guillotine – a vape debate continues

Posted 31st December 2017 by Dave Cross
Discussion, debates and arguments are all healthy as long as they move society’s understanding of the issue forward. Sundeep Mishra, of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, has put forward an essay that invokes the great philosopher David Hume. He responds to his self-imposed question “Are e-cigarettes beneficial for public health” by talking about the knowledge gap.

Mishra has published a paper in the Indian Heart Journal where he explains what he sees as the cause of division within the scientific community: “on one hand [ecigs] could lead to reduction of some side-effects of tobacco smoke. On the other there is a fear that its use could lead to loosening of the taboo currently associated with use of tobacco products.” It is clear he has missed a number of points, but he notes the key one: “Smokers smoke for the nicotine, but are killed by the tar”.

In India, as we’ve covered many times, the death toll related to tobacco is horrific. It’s an issue that needs urgent attention yet the government is ruling out vaping as an option – despite the UK’s strong support for the new disruptive technology.

What Mishra has had no problem in doing is finding a number of studies to put across the negative aspects of vaping. He cites Olfert’s aorta-stiffening study, Middlekauff’s heart disease marker study and mentions aldehydes and cytotoxic flavour agents.

He does mention: “[Ecigs] are, however, considered safer and less destructive to health than traditional cigarettes although equally addictive. [They] may also contain some carcinogens like nor-nicotine, nitrosamines, aldehydes and propylene oxide but in much lower amounts (9- to 450-fold less).”

What is vital is that the message the Royal College of Physicians put out is getting across, and Mishra refers to it: “On the basis of available evidence, the RCP believes that e-cigarettes could lead to significant falls in the prevalence of smoking in the UK, prevent many deaths and episodes of serious illness, and help to reduce the social inequalities in health that tobacco smoking currently exacerbates.”


Invoking Hume raises an excellent point. Rationalwiki states: “Hume's law (sometimes called ‘Hume's Guillotine’), addresses what is referred to as the "is-ought" problem, and states that you can't derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The law is also a rebuttal of the Moralistic fallacy.”

Hume’s approach is correct, we can’t plan for the future because of what is currently done or previously done with regards to nicotine, it’s time for a paradigm shift. Those opposed to vaping want to see it banned for ideological reasons- they are filling their knowledge gap by assuming the worst and drawing the wrong conclusions. Mishra’s paper might not be the most thorough or balanced, but it does raise an interesting point in how we debate with the opposition in the future.

 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, physicist, karateka, motorbikes, and dog walker
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