Social pressures rather than physical dangers may restrict e-cigarette use, says university professor

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As part of the Psychology Invited Speakers Seminar Series at the University of Leicester, Professor Jason Hughes from the University's Department of Sociology will today argue that e-cigarettes, which are currently unregulated throughout the United Kingdom, will soon face legislation that will restrict and ban them - and that concerns about social dangers, more than physical dangers to health, will be the cause of it. 

Professor Hughes said: "In the near future, e-cigarette use will be tightly restricted in Europe, and perhaps altogether banned in certain public places; we may soon see further national bans, such as those already in place in countries such as Singapore and the UAE.

"However, most interestingly, these bans will likely not be based on the 'physical dangers' of 'vaping' - a term used to refer to e-cigarette use - but on the 'social dangers': that it is offensive to others; that it may re-normalise smoking; that it may become a gateway drug to others more dangerous; and on a moral sentiment: that it is wrong for anyone to be addicted to anything, no matter whether there are physical dangers or not."

He argues that new legislation, such as the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, gives consumers mixed and confusing messages about the role of the devices as either 'healthy alternatives' that can be used to help quit smoking or as a new form of 'smoking'.

He said: "At one point we could draw a fairly clear distinction between 'keep smoking' devices such as cigarettes containing combustible tobacco which yield nicotine, tar, and a bewildering array of carcinogens and 'stop smoking devices' in the form Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs), such as patches, gum, lozenges, throat sprays, and inhalators, which have been widely promoted by health practitioners to help wean smokers off cigarettes.

"But with e-cigarettes - which are marketed as 'recreational' nicotine products - that simple distinction between 'keep smoking' and 'stop smoking' devices breaks down. E-cigarettes are used both as cessation aids, and as safer alternatives to combustible tobacco: ultimately it depends not on how we classify these new products, but on how they are used and understood by 'vapers'. This ambiguity has brought e-cigarettes under scrutiny from tobacco control circles, who have fought to enforce restrictive legislation."

Professor Hughes argues future legislation that positions e-cigarettes as 'therapies' which require tight regulation may drastically diminish their appeal. As a result, he predicts smokers who would have otherwise switched to what is a safer source of nicotine will continue to smoke combustible tobacco and will shun e-cigarettes in the same way as they have done with nicotine patches, gum, sprays and so on.

He added: "This will naturally play into the hands of large tobacco corporations who will continue to dominate the market: firstly, through bolstering cigarettes as the principal device for recreational tobacco use; and secondly, through introducing regulatory obstacles that are likely to put smaller e-cigarette manufacturers out of contention - and so allow Big Tobacco to re-establish its monopoly."

Professor Hughes's research into e-cigarettes builds on a longer-standing interest in tobacco use. His first book on the topic, Learning to Smoke: Tobacco Use in the West, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003, where he argued for the 'civilisation' of tobacco use.

Professor Hughes will be speaking about e-cigarettes as part of the Psychology Invited Speakers Seminar Series at the University of Leicester on Thursday 13 March. The seminar, which is not open to the public, is entitled 'E-cigarettes and the 'civilisation' of tobacco use' and will outline how understandings of nicotine addiction have not just influenced regulations over how tobacco products are marketed, produced, and consumed, but have also shifted social understandings of tobacco use, and the way that smokers themselves understand and experience their habit.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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