This week the European Parliament voted for bigger warning labels on cigarette packs, the banning of ‘lipstick’ size cigarette packets and menthol flavours, and, perhaps most importantly for our children’s sake, in favour of new regulations for the manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes, devices which are single-handedly undoing decades of progress in the denormalisation of smoking. This is a good start. However, when it comes to the profit-driven bullying of the nicotine trade, and the vicious grip their drug has on its users, each of these provisions are, at the end of the day, ad-hoc solutions amounting to a small cloud of tiny vapourised whiffs of drops in the ocean.
Consider this: Wisconsin e-cigarette company Dream 9 currently boast of a new product in development that ‘neatly addresses’ the foul phenomenon of renormalisation. By making vaping invisible (by making the vapour invisible) they say, their ‘Stealth’ e-cig means that children will no longer be bothered by unhealthy visual cues from their addicted forbears. Excellent. But wait, what’s this? To ‘aid his own satisfaction and raise the chance of his quitting tobacco cigarettes’ the user himself is invited to see his vapour through filters housed in glasses. What type of glasses? Cool and stylish sunglasses. In one fell swoop Dream 9 actually up the cool quotient of vaping while professing to do the opposite, as we can see from their promotional literature:
Duplicitous, profit-driven health-wash like this, then, is what a future Tobacco Products Directive, if it followed the lead of the current incarnation, would have to deal with by, for example, regulating the shape and style of glasses the device came with – something along these lines, perhaps:
Well, that’s ok isn’t it? Actually, no. What about ‘regional taste pools’? City regions like Hoxton, Shoreditch, Dalston and their European equivalents, which famously distinguish themselves by co-opting what the rest of us consider plain and ugly, garish and odd into their own versions of ‘cool’, would embrace interventions like silly glasses at the drop of a trilby or dear-stalker. Yet further ad-hoc legislation would be needed to ensure that people from Hoxton etc. could only buy styles of glasses incapable of ironic assimilation – say, the middlingly stylish but uninspiring sort that people who work in local housing provision and English teaching like to wear. And then, how would we enforce these geographical rules? How would we stop people from Old Street hopping over to Stratford for their wares or people from Dalston going up to Walthamstow? The result would be a long, labyrinthine legislative mess, utterly torpedoing the EU government’s proud history of targetted, clear-cut, simply-understood intervention.
So we need a new approach. And we can do this by going straight to that mass of neuronal spaghetti and synaptic jelly, the brain, and asking the question: Why have people smoked cigarettes and continue to smoke electronic cigarettes? What is it about this awful ritual that captivates so many people?
Our research shows there’s a simple answer to this. Crucially, the key is in the hand-to-mouth movement smokers use to get the cigarette to their mouths. Initially, through moving the hand to the mouth, we are taught by our mothers and fathers that the action aids our survival: it’s how we move food from ‘out there’ (in the world) to ‘in there’ (in the stomach); vital notions of agency are therefore embedded in the act. By adding in the swagger of doing it just because you can, however – as with smoking – the effect is compounded: it becomes a kind of ‘super-agency’.
This notion of ‘super-agency’ is very important when we consider why we value agency in others: while we value it in itself for our own survival we value it in others because it confers evolutionary advantage. The ‘super-agency’ of smoking, therefore – quite perversely – signals extra advantage. Here, then, is where any serious attempt to denormalise smoking must be targeted.
Fortunately for those of us interested in harms reduction there’s a corollary to agency: lack of agency, being overcome by the diseases of old age, being unable to act in the world in the vital ways of youth. Loss of agency like this triggers feelings of sexual indifference and distaste. The question is, how might we exploit this evolutionary instinct? Well, remember that it’s the hand-to-mouth movement that’s the key ingredient so one way we can do it is by attaching small ‘jumping bean’ motors to e-cigarettes: such an attachment would interrupt the super-agency signals generated by the device’s use to visually imply vapers have Parkinson’s disease.
There are, of course, some sober externalities to consider with this type of intervention, namely, could it result in a lot of distress for actual sufferers of Parkinson’s disease to see large groups of young people ‘mimicking’ their very real symptoms and physical disabilities? Would young people in Hoxton and Shoreditch co-opt the look and actively start malmedicating to develop the real disease? This last suggestion is obviously so far-fetched as to be risible, but that real sufferers might incur visual distress is something to take seriously. The diseases of old age are challenges for which we have the profoundest sympathy and understanding, and anything that would add to the distress of having them would be anathema to us.
In the meantime we’ll be presenting our research and proposals to the European Commission and ask for your support too! Please add your name below to our campaign.