Peddlers of candy-coloured vapes are like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Childcatcher– Karyn McCluskey

In hindsight, more could have been done to prevent the harmful effects of vapes

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. When faced with wicked issues like prison populations, drugs and a myriad of other problems, we, more often than not, propose a raft of policies or laws to address it. Sometimes it’s a startling success and sometimes it leads to a series of unintended consequences that require policy and laws of their own to address. Occasionally, it’s both.

This week, I was speaking to a group of students. We talked about some of the ideas of the day: decriminalisation of drugs, building prisons, drug treatment and testing. It’s a great intellectual exercise to get into the weeds of a problem and make people think through the standpoint they have.

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Often it has been shaped by social media or the headlines but the detail and ramifications of it haven’t been fully and thoughtfully explored. The media has a huge role still in shaping opinion and educating the populace by providing context and opposing views. It is often derided for negatively influencing what we think and feel, yet its role to inform is critically important.

We started to speak about policy and interventions that change a problem but leave us with other, different issues. I used the shift from cigarettes to vaping as an example. It went something like this: the evils of smoking – awful chemicals, people addicted to nicotine and the ritual of smoking, lung disease and death – replaced with vapes. Hey presto: harmful aspects of smoking tobacco reduced.

There’s little doubt that removing the toxins is a huge health boon, but the flip side is young people vaping who would never have smoked, because of the smell and taste. There is a range of Willy Wonka vape fluids, in tempting flavours, marketed to catch the eye of the young (and old!). E-cigarettes contain nicotine, so while less harmful, the craving to consume persists, disrupting sleep cycles and emptying wallets. And there are the modern-day pied pipers – or, maybe more accurately, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Childcatcher – selling candy-coloured vapes outside schools.

In truth, even if we had foresight of these unintended consequences, we would have gone ahead, such are the health benefits. But I’m sure that the policy would have been fundamentally different; the introduction of vapes wrapped up in legislation about products and how they are sold.

Life is busy, yet real space and time must be given so we can undertake the philosophical thought experiments required to truly consider the potential impact of public policies or laws. This must involve a wide range of critical minds, and crucially those who are closest to the issue. They always spot the potential flaws and opportunities that no one else has.

Headlines and knee-jerk reactions do not good decisions make, the best decisions are evidence-based. It should start with consideration of what the country should look like in the future, for without that we end up with ‘push me, pull you’ policies and practice – trying to go in different directions at the same time, and going nowhere.

Embarking on a path that changes a country and many of its people irrevocably, takes serious thought, challenge, intellect, rigour – and should never be done in a vacuum.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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