Smoking lite? No, vaping’s a lungful of fun for hipsters


Originally Published in The Sunday Times – Jenny Hjul  23 August 2015

Prescribing ecigarettes may help a few smokers to quit but most users are fashion victims, not addicts, writes a former puffer

There is something about the smell of cigarette smoke and the furtive air of real smokers that makes me regret, fleetingly and stupidly, the day I quit. Although I am glad I am an ex-addict and would never want to repeat the giving up process, I find myself drawn towards the coughing pariahs who gather outside buildings.

Vapers, as those who smoke ecigarettes are known, are different. While proper smokers cock a snook at society with their reckless self-destruction, the vaping brigade seem to be people who do things by halves.

They do not huddle in doorways, but walk among us, sucking on their odourless pen-like devices, the vapour coming out of their noses.

Now there are moves to make ecigarettes available on the NHS, as a “smoking cessation aid”. The battery-powered vaporisers that simulate smoking are said to be 95% less harmful than tobacco.

While they are not risk-free, they deliver a nicotine hit without the carcinogens associated with breathing in smoke. They are the most popular quitting method in Britain and doctors estimate that if every one of Britain’s 8m smokers switched to ecigs, 75,000 lives a year could be saved.

It is hard to argue against the experts, and impossible to make a rational argument for real smoking. People who smoke fags are irresponsible and selfish. They do not deserve our help. Vapers, on the other hand, are heeding the medical advice, they have a social conscience, and they do not pollute the atmosphere.

But they still look ridiculous. That in itself is not a reason to balk at their being subsidised by the health service, of course, though it is good enough for the reformed smoker in me.

More objectively, there are many causes more deserving of health spending than smokers, even the electronic kind, as the public has been quick to point out. While air ambulances are funded by donations and cystic fibrosis sufferers must pay for their drugs, there can be no justification for providing ecigarettes on prescription.

Smokers choose to smoke, whereas others who depend on limited NHS resources do not choose to be sick or injured. And vapers, of all people, have money to burn. When I gave up (at about 3am on January 8, 2001), a packet of 20 cost £4 to £5. Now, they are double the price. Ecigarettes, being rechargeable, will amount to huge savings for anyone making the switch.

Anyway, smokers in some parts of the country can already claim nicotine patches on the NHS; they do not need any more financial assistance.

But for me this is not so much about the money as the principle. If I could quit (Marlboro) at the same time as my husband (Silk Cut), and if we could endure the cold turkey, practically marriage-ending, withdrawal symptoms without props, why can’t they?

Giving up was memorably awful. I chewed gum, read Allen Carr, and drank faster and more frequently. It was hell but I did it.

And I was not even the most hardened smoker I knew. A colleague, back in the days when you could smoke in the office, would drive home with his handkerchief tied to the radio aerial. This, he explained, was to put his wife off the scent because she had threatened to divorce him if he did not quit.

Another workmate took the brave decision to kick the habit after he devised a way to smoke in the shower. “I knew then it had gone too far,” he said.

But at least these desperados managed to wean themselves off through willpower alone. What happened to willpower? By resorting to NHS ecigarettes, medics are condoning a certain weakness of character that makes yesteryear’s quitters verge on the heroic.

They are also, to a large extent, missing the point about vaping. Among the UK’s estimated 2.6m people who regularly use ecigarettes, there are, no doubt, genuine smokers who want to stop.

But vaping has become a craze, with devotees who have no intention of abandoning their new hobby. It has even been likened to a sub-culture, complete with customised vaporisers and a vaping lexicon.

A whole ecigarette industry has sprung up, with stores and accessories and an online presence. There appears to be an active vaping community that trades tips and probably considers itself cool in a geeky way.

As the owner of one ecigarette shop told the Digital Trends website: “You’re not downgrading from a cigarette. You’re getting something more . . . you’re able to fine-tune the experience.” At an ecigarette convention, real (or “analogue”) cigarettes were banned by vaping enthusiasts, proof if it were needed that these people are a breed apart from proper smokers.

Can you imagine Bogart or Bacall with an ecig, or Paul Henreid vaping up to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager? I rest my (cigarette) case.

■ Pringles have been defended since David Cameron was snapped eating paprika-flavoured ones on an easyJet flight to Portugal. No damage was done to the prime minister’s image, or to the brand’s profile.

But I pity his fellow passengers. I recently sat next to a couple munching Pringles (original flavour) on a flight which, rather like Dave’s trip to the sun, was a short haul. It was neither time for breakfast, lunch nor dinner but the compulsion to eat once airborne seems to be strong.

Many carriers hand out Pringles as their snack of choice, so it is hard to fly anywhere without hearing or smelling them. I do not like Pringles, but until I can demonstrate an allergy I will have to put up with them, by proxy. However, I do wonder why passengers cannot refrain from eating on one or two-hour trips. The PM would have been given a decent meal before leaving for the airport and another on arrival at his ultimate destination.

Do people who polish off whole tubes of Pringles on aeroplanes do so at their desks too? I bet they don’t. Flying, or perhaps travelling generally, prompts the hunger response. Or is it boredom? Whatever, our prime minister showed himself to be a man of the people, not in his choice of airline, which was probably contrived, but in his Pringles moment, which looked more genuine.