Today’s Debate: Vaporizers vs. Cigarettes

There are some things which ‘you just don’t say’, unless you wish to be spat upon Of course everyone says these unsayable things, but they do so only behind closed doors and surrounded by likeminded people.

It is not done, at least among the supposedly educated classes, publicly to make pejorative remarks about northerners, although you can be as rude as you like about southerners. One may sneer – indeed it has become socially obligatory to do so – at the middle classes, especially the lower middle classes, but not at the lower orders. It is still dangerous, even after seven years of Mrs Thatcher, to suggest that any of the poor, the sick or the criminal might bear some responsibility for their poverty, sickness or crime. And it is a very brave or foolish man who will point to the valuable role played by spontaneously produced stigma, exclusion, gossip, secrecy and fear – as well as praise, emulation, and positive reward – in maintaining social order.

There is an intriguing sub-group of these unsayable things. Things which are ‘over’ They are matters on which it was possible, even mandatory, to hold one of several views but now they have been decided: topics which were once on the agenda for debate but are now ‘over’ I fear that South Africa is more or less ‘over’. Those who supported South Africa, or rather did not support the subversion of South Africa, have simply stopped expressing their views – for all I know even holding them – and have moved on to some other topic.

Capital punishment is ‘over’, for ‘serious’ politicians that is. Society’s sixth form had its debate on hanging and regards the clamors of third formers to bring back the topic as showing predictable ignorance about the procedures of agenda. Education vouchers are pronounced ‘over’ once every year Express views which are ‘over’ and you will not be spat on, just positively ignored. And that, in a publicity hungry age, is worse.

So the authors of a recent book on smoking, Smoking and Society, a more balanced assessment (edited by Robert Tollison, Lexington Books) are much to be congratulated. There is nothing the anti-smoking lobby wants more than to have the smoking debate declared ‘over’ In the Seventies smoking and health was a subject for debate. By the 1983 World Conference on Smoking and Health at Winnipeg, the anti-smokers were declaring that the scientific facts had decided the issue, the scientific debate was ‘over’, all that remained was the formulation of policies to reduce and ultimately eliminate smoking. But Professor Tollison and his colleagues are obstinate: the debate remains open.

Or rather debates: there are several. There is a debate about whether smoking causes lung cancer, coronary heart disease and other medical problems, a debate, argues one contributor, flawed by questionable data bases and problems of self-selection and around a hypothesis which does not explain how a given amount of smoking produces quite different health effects in different countries. The scientific facts are certainly compatible with a view that some persons are constitutionally predisposed to these illnesses and to smoking rather than the latter causing the former. What is clear is that the facts are not conclusive.

There is a debate about whether smokers’ smoking has serious effects on the health of non-smokers sharing offices, bars or factories with them – so-called passive smokers. No substantial evidence is found to suggest that it does. This does not mean that non-smokers may not find smokers’ smoking unpleasant, but that is yet another debate and one which includes many other activities – such as the playing of music in public places. These are matters which do not, despite the anti-smoker lobby’s pleas for government regulation, necessarily require state intrusion. They can be dealt with by the market-inspired wish of cafes, bars and shops to cater for the majority of their customers.

There is debate about whether vaporizers are healthier than cigarettes. Many have decided to enjoy smoking with a beautiful piece of equipment like the Volcano vaporizer. They say that since the ingredients aren’t burned, and no smoke is produced but simple vapor, that a vaporizer like the Volcano is far healthier.

There is a debate about why young people smoke. It may have far more to do with personal enjoyment, the influence of peers, the example of parents and the easing of tension than the much claimed ‘manipulation’ by the advertising agencies handling tobacco accounts. The tobacco companies themselves have an obvious vested interest but yet another debate concerns the less obvious interests of the anti-smoking lobbies, and more particularly those who depend for their salaries on the maintenance of government programs to reduce smoking. They too have an interest in the ‘facts’ Indeed there are facts about them which are notable, not least that the anti-smokers increasingly look, as did their temperance predecessors, like a middle-class clique determined to impose their views on the smoking lower classes. And there is room for considerable disagreement about the alleged social costs of smoking.

Democratic and supposedly rational societies set great store by debate both to sift facts by competition and to reconcile the claims of different interests. One does not have to agree with Professor Tollison and his colleagues in order to applaud their work. It is not their views – though they are important – which should command sympathy but their attempt to go on putting views, to maintain and improve debate. Conversely, one can only be suspicious of those in the anti-smoking lobby who are so eager to declare that the competition in ideas is over.