2 August 2018

Vaping is virtuous. Don’t tax it


If we are interested in being honest about these things, even committed vapers — aficionados of “electronic” cigarettes — will acknowledge it’s not as good as the real thing. Just as the old, now sadly prohibited, advertisements promised that “You’re Never Alone With A Strand” so nothing can quite replace the pure, wild, goodness of cigarettes.

Proper cigarettes, of course. None of your Silk Cut nonsense here, please. Full-fat Marlboro at the very least. Players Navy Cut or Camel filterless as acceptable substitutes. Gitanes or Gauloises Caporal while holidaying in France or the local throat-scrapers when venturing further east towards Turkey or the Balkans. Real tobacco of the kind that drags you upright first thing in the morning, providing the necessary juice to make a new day seem marginally less appalling; proper cigarettes that remind you how nicotine is the sweetest, most delicious, mistress of them all. No menthol.

But, nevertheless, facts are facts and there comes a time when, for any one of a number of reasons, it is time to put the smokes away for good. This was, in my experience anyway, a melancholy moment; a fading of the light and an acknowledgement that we cannot remain young forever.

Switching to artificial “cigarettes” — or, rather, to an electronic nicotine delivery system — has several advantages. In the first place, some enlightened places will even allow you to vape indoors. No more huddling in doorways or bus shelters. Secondly, and far from trivially, even if the comparative health advantages of vaping remain under-explored, the most usual estimate is that e-fags are approaching 90 per cent less bad for you than traditional cigarettes. Doubtless there are scolds to claim vaping is just as prejudicial to good health as proper cigarettes but it is scarcely conceivable there can be no upside to switching to vape-juice.

Not least because of the third factor: price. Vaping is not as cheap as it used to be now that the juice-firms have cottoned on to the opportunities allowed by the marketing of “premium” vaping liquid but it remains a vastly more affordable form of nicotine consumption. I suppose a 20-a-day smoker is these days considered a member of the heavy brigade but with a packet of tabs costing upwards of £10 he or she is also someone prepared to make considerable sacrifices for their pleasure (or, if you must, their addiction). A reasonably dedicated cigarette habit costs more than £3,000 a year.

Lost amidst the tut-tutting about cigarettes is the fact that, without wishing to discount nicotine’s addictive qualities, vast numbers of smokers indulge their habit because doing so gives them pleasure. When or if it ceases to do so, many of them successfully give it up.

Others, meanwhile, make the switch to vaping. It is estimated that as many as three million Britons have switched to e-cigs. Naturally, scaremongering stories about vaping acting as a “gateway” habit to smoking real cigarettes abound but the overwhelming — indeed, near total — majority of vapers are former consumers of traditional tobacco products. This should be considered a public health success story and in a saner world would be.

But here we encounter the competing interests of government departments and the deep-rooted perversities of incentives. The department of health is forever cajoling Britons to lead more wholesome — and longer — lives. On balance there is doubtless something useful in this. At the very least the public should be aware of the risks involved in pursuing their appetites. That all this progress costs the exchequer dear is a price worth paying. The soaring cost of healthcare in years to come will only partly be the result of miraculous new treatments; much of it will be the inevitable consequence of millions of Britons living – for want of a less blunt way of putting it — too damn long.

There is already evidence that smokers, for all that many die as a result of their habit, cost the exchequer less than their healthier, longer-lived, compatriots. The Treasury would certainly not mind if smoking became more, not less, popular.

That means taxing tobacco’s competitors. At present, there is a sweet spot — for the Treasury anyway — at which tobacco revenues can remain constant while the number of smokers continues to decline. Switching to vaping is of no use to the Treasury; it helps people live longer while reducing government income. Viewed from the Treasury, vapers are little better than teetotal non-smokers.

Which may help explain why, as The Sun reports, the Treasury is keen to tax vaping. A five per cent levy on vape-juice might bring in £40m a year; chickenfeed but this, naturally, would only be the start. The vape tax, it is suggested, should be treated like any other “sin tax” even though the sinfulness (sic) of the behaviour is not immediately apparent. Indeed, vaping might even be considered virtuous.

But there you have it: a government at cross-purposes with itself. A Department of Health which should encourage vaping at loggerheads with a Treasury determined to make vaping less attractive. A reminder, too, that the desire for “joined-up government” can never actually be met for the aims and interests of different departments are frequently at odds with one another. What you gain on the swings, you lose on the roundabouts.

It’s four years now since, having made the mistake of renting an upper-floor flat in which the landlord frowned upon smoking, I switched to vaping. The consolations are considerable, not the least of which being that it is possible to increase one’s nicotine consumption without feeling that doing so may be ravaging several vital organs. As substitutes go, it is a better-than-decent one even if it is not, and never can be, quite the same, or as good, as the real thing.

But in time the pleasures of vaping become apparent; it is a harmless activity that may even, in terms of collective well-being, do some good. No wonder the Treasury must do what it can to make it seem less attractive. Nothing that is either pleasurable or useful can be permitted to exist beyond the long arm of the exchequer. When something is both of those things, it must be suppressed. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.