Euan McColm: Nonsense NHS ban of E-cigarettes

THE first one was a 10p ­single from the van parked outside my school. I was 13 years old, it was a Regal king size, and it made me choke until my eyes watered.

THE first one was a 10p ­single from the van parked outside my school. I was 13 years old, it was a Regal king size, and it made me choke until my eyes watered.

It was not, on the face of things, a success.

But I thought I was as cool as all-get-out and resolved to become a skilled smoker, thus would the world know I was a serious man, and girls – at that point bafflingly disinterested – would swoon at my sophistication.

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By the time I was 14, I had a ten-a-day habit, funded with lunch money (fear not, concerned reader, I did not starve. I was able to buy a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch with the cash left over) and when I left school at 17, I was on 20 untipped Camels.

I can’t plead ignorance to the risks. When I had my first cigarette in 1983, I knew it was bad for me. In fact, I had spent the previous few years relentlessly nagging my grandparents to pack in their 20-a-day habits, explaining the risk of cancer, lecturing them about the pointless waste of money, and complaining about the lingering stench. (It will surprise some, I’m sure, but I was quite an irritating, smart-arse back then.)

Anyway, shortly after Jimmy and Lena packed in the fags, I took them up.

Over the past 32 years, cigarettes and I have been through good and bad, together. When I had cash in my pocket, I dabbled with gold-tipped Sobranies and when things were tight I made roll-ups from dowps. I can toss a lit fag in the air and catch it ­between my teeth and I can spark a Zippo with a click of my fingers.

I know, I know, it’s impressive, eh? I’m basically the Fonz of fags.

But, despite the prima facie evidence, I’m not a complete imbecile and I’ve known for a long time that smoking is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve quit twice – once for three years and a second time for four – but nicotine, that dirty little ­bastard, has found its way back into my life each time.

As I write, on Friday evening, it’s five full days since I smoked a cigarette. As I took the first drag on a fag last Sunday night, I was so consumed by self-loathing that I stubbed it out. Then, I tore up the last 12 Marlboros in the packet.

Half an hour later, I was the owner of a neat little battery-powered cheroot and, since, I’ve been taking my nicotine through mint and cherry flavoured vapour. This means I’m still an addict but can breathe more easily, I don’t stink (as far as I’m aware) and I’ve stopped coughing so hard every morning it feels like a lung might flop, like a bruised and bloodied squid, into the sink.

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Friends and family – and generous strangers on Twitter – have been hugely encouraging as I try to kick the habit for the third time. And, though I know these are early days, my electronic cigarette has saved me a small fortune and prevented me from sucking in the carcinogens that set so many on course for a pointlessly premature death.

As far as I am concerned, the e-cigarette is a remarkable invention. And I know from the experiences of others – my sister included – that they can make the process of quitting considerably easier.

You might think that, with smoking contributing to 13,500 deaths in Scotland each year, both the government and the NHS might see some merit in encouraging the use of electronic ciga­rettes. I know that nicotine isn’t a health supplement but it’s the smoke, the burning tar that does the worst damage. Surely, the pragmatic view has to be that the use of e-cigs is preferable to the use of the real thing?

But who cares for pragmatism when there’s puritanism to enjoy?

Last week it was announced that all of Scotland’s health boards – with the exception of NHS Lothian, which will provide designated areas – will ban the use of electronic cigarettes on their grounds by April.

There is no obligation on them to do so (the government merely requires that they prevent the smoking of actual cigarettes, which seems ­reasonable). No, this is nannying for the hell of it.

The arguments in favour of ­banning e-cig use are well rehearsed. The favourite one of the intolerant is that the devices may “normalise” smoking. Young people, for example, may see someone using a vaporiser and decide to buy 20 B&H. That young people can see people smoking real cigarettes in the street is neither here nor there. These fake fags are the real danger, you see.

If you’ve been in – or even near – a hospital at any stage in your life, you’ll have seen people standing by the doorways, smoking. Sometimes, these folk are visitors. More often, it seems, they are patients.

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Non-smokers may shake their heads with disbelief but, truly, nicotine has such a grip on some users that even the fact that smoking has caused serious illness is not always motivation enough to quit.

No, I accept, we do not yet know the long-term effects of vaporiser use but we do know that it removes smoke from the process. And a range of experts – from the NHS in England and Wales to the Royal College of Physicians – says that e-cigarettes are far safer than the real thing.

An (admittedly small) NHS study last year found that the most serious effect of vaping was a dry cough in some users. This, I would suggest, is vastly preferable to lung cancer.

Smoking is a damnable addiction which continues to destroy lives. If only we could uninvent the cigarette. But we can’t, can we? Instead we can try to find ways of making it easier for addicts to quit. Unless, of course, we’re the Scottish NHS, in which case, we can make it even harder.

What a bloody vindictive idea this illiberal ban on vaping is.