The Wiki Man

Why don’t more non-smokers try e-cigarettes?

Stats from an anti-smoking group suggest that vaping is the very opposite of a gateway drug

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

I was waiting on an office forecourt recently puffing on an e-cigarette when a security guard came out. ‘You can’t smoke here,’ he shouted.

‘I’m not, actually,’ I replied.

He went to consult his superior. A few minutes later he reappeared.

‘You can’t use e-cigarettes here either.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you are projecting the image of smoking.’

‘What, insouciance?’

‘Go away.’

I did.

This phrase ‘projecting the image of smoking’ — along with ‘renormalisation’, ‘gateway effect’ and the usual ‘think of the children’ — appears frequently in arguments for restricting the use of e-cigs in public places.

While new evidence may yet emerge to support restrictions, these reasons don’t convince me. Like the security guard’s response, they look like a desperate attempt to reverse-engineer a logical argument to suit an emotional predisposition.

As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, most moralising works this way. We react instinctively, and then hastily cast about for rationalisations. For instance, most Britons feel it is repulsive to eat dogs or even horses. If you ask why, they will contrive a whole series of fatuous arguments to defend what is really an emotional belief.

In the same way, people with a distaste for vaping eagerly seize on arguments like the gateway effect. This is the idea that non-smokers will take up e-cigarettes, and so migrate to real cigarettes. The gateway effect makes sense, too. Or it would, were it not that the evidence for it is somewhere between negligible and nonexistent. The traffic seems to flow entirely in the opposite direction — from smoking to vaping to (in many cases) quitting altogether. According to those fun-lovin’ guys at Ash, only 0.1 per cent of e-smokers have never smoked tobacco. Only 5 per cent of children use e-cigs more than once a week — almost all current or ex-smokers.

Frankly, I was surprised how low the figures were. I would have expected at least 5 per cent of nonsmokers to give e-cigs a try. What’s going on?

A possible explanation is that smoking is not so much an addiction as a habit: that after a few years of smoking, it is the associations, actions and mannerisms we crave more than the drug itself. Hence, if you have not first been addicted to smoking conventional cigarettes, e-cigs simply don’t hit the spot — just as those of us who have never been heroin addicts tend not to be all that keen on needles.

A few years ago, a high-court judge was driving home from his golf club after five or six double gin and tonics. He was pulled over by the police and breathalysed. When the machine barely registered an amber light, the police let him go — at which point he drove back to the club and demanded the head barman be fired for watering down the drinks.

It has been known for years by dodgy barmen that, after one proper G&T, you can sell people tonic water in a glass lightly rinsed in gin and they won’t notice the difference. And some more regular drinkers will still experience all the effects of drunkenness, even though they have consumed almost no alcohol. However, this works only if you have spent a lot of your past life drinking real G&Ts. Among heavy drinkers, the brain doesn’t wait for the booze to kick in — it shortcuts straight to the expected level of pissedness.

A similar placebo effect may mean that ersatz smoking only works for ex-smokers. If so, the good news for the vaping industry is that one common objection can be rejected. The ‘bad’ news is that e-cigarette sales may shrink as they run out of former smokers to convert.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Freedom

    a desperate attempt to reverse-engineer a logical argument to suit an emotional predisposition.

    Otherwise known as ‘rationalizing’. Leftists are past masters at it. Don’t let them win at their own game.

    Interestingly, wine is very different: I appreciate the context of wine but since it changes for me all the time — my emotional state, the company, the place, the situation — it’s not about ritual for me but the lustre it adds to the evening. A night without wine is simply more boring. That egghead friend of schools wrote about this not that long ago. Toby Young.

    As for G&Ts: the thing is that tonic so much mimics the gin. It allows one to cut the gin down, if wanting to curb the ebriety. Whereas with wine you are either drinking or not drinking it. Cocktails are for babies, really.

    I like this spoof on suggestive drinking by the American comedians Jackie Gleason and Art Carney (about 8 minutes in): Of course in those days on TV you couldn’t indicate that they actually got drunk.

    • Julian Smith

      I have much the same experience with beer.

      And I doubt very much whether a security guard was working towards the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Instead, he was was more likely to have been worried that a lot of ‘vaping’ outside the office would look enough like smoking that the next thing is he’d have smokers in amongst the ‘vape-ers’ (‘vapists’?) and a load of dog-ends littering the pavement. Like all slippery-slope arguments, it’s not especially sound logic, but that does not stop lots of people in all walks of life firmly clinging to them.

      My hunch is that you’re absolutely right about the rationalisation going on, but that the unspoken fear isn’t some leftist interference in the exercise of free will, and much more likely to be that they fear that someone high up will arrive for work, see a lot of their employees hanging around smoking (real smoking or e-smoking) outside when they should really be working and give someone a bollocking for letting it happen*.

      Given the hierarchical structure and blame culture of most British businesses, shit rolls downhill, so the lowly chap in the navy jumper with epaulettes and elbow patches simply tries to avoid a later telling off by telling off poor old Rory.

      *This, not legislation or health advice, is why businesses have so quickly embraced the discouragement of smoking outside the workplace as well as in it (where passive smoking can be a genuine health concern). It’s also why most outdoor smoking areas are at the back of any given business premises, not outside the front door.

      • Interesting points. The difference between wine and beer, though, is that beer has so many more carbs : )

        • rorysutherland

          Gin has less than either.

          • I had a Beefeater gin and a ‘naturally light’ posh tonic yesterday afternoon, with a wedge of lemon. It was a real treat. (I already have too many habits to get into the gin habit!)

  • Fred

    Hi Rory, I’ve been reading your articles for a while now, since the your 2009 TED talk. I would like to know of your opinion on Bitcoin and specifically how it could influence our day to day relationships with media.
    Here’s a TED talk on the subject

    It’d be great if you could share your thoughts, much appreciated!

    • rorysutherland

      Expect a piece on Bitcoin soon. I have been remiss.

  • Kate Gowers

    I think a good deal of the resistance to e-cigs is the demonisation of smokers in general. The view seems to be that we smokers are at fault, and are weak, for havingt started smoking. Therefore anything short of ‘cold turkey’ (thus showing strength) is frowned upon. E-cigs are especially prone to this because they not only resemble smoking (ish), but some smokers actually (gasp) enjoy e-cigarettes, and this cannot be allowed. After all, the patches are itchy (and give weird, intense dreams – this I know from experience), the gum is vile and give heartburn and so on.

    One study (on a slightly different but related note) showed that the demonising of smoking has one very, very negative effect. Some smokers are now reluctant to visit their doctors for fear of being belittled for being a smoker, or treated as second class patient – indeed, fear of being blamed for their condition (a feeling I deeply understand). So not only are smokers more likely to get a dreadful illness such as lung cancer, they may be less likely to seek early diagnosis and treatment.

    E-cigs allow smokers to remain ‘weak’ and so cannot be allowed. As you may guess, I am a smoker. This is something to which I object.

  • Harvey

    Though I think ecigs to be a great invention to enable smokers to significantly reduce the risk they’ve had from analog smoking, I’ve seen two former nonsmokers become analog smokers. I realize this is relatively rare and shouldn’t result in a similar banning for this new technology but my observation indicates it’s at least possible.
    In one case the woman, who purchased the ecigs for her analog smoking boyfriend so that he’d learn to quit his analog habit, tried it out, liked it (note, it was high nicotine) and, when the boyfriend ended up going back to analogs she was more amenable to trying his smokes and eventually fell into the trap.