The US Surgeon General has made his first intervention in the nicotine-delivery debate since e-cigarettes arrived in America – and his findings have alarmed experts on this side of the Atlantic. In his report released this morning, Vivek Murthy MD called for action to reduce the use of e-cigarettes among young people, noting they have overtaken cigarettes to become the most commonly used tobacco products among this group.

He added that young people are more vulnerable to the negative consequences of nicotine exposure than adults – ‘These effects include addiction, priming for use of other addictive substances, reduced impulse control, deficits in attention and cognition, and mood disorders,’ he said in a preface to the report – and concluded with a recommendation that e-cigarettes be incorporated into existing smoke-free policies, including preventing youth from accessing e-cigarettes, implementing price and tax policies that discourage use and encouraging federal regulation of marketing.

‘We know a great deal about what works to effectively prevent tobacco use,’ the report says. ‘Now we must apply these strategies to e-cigarettes.’

The trouble is, many of the effects that Murthy ascribes to nicotine could equally be applied to sugar, or caffeine (including ‘addiction’ – for which, given all the variables, no one can yet claim a proper understanding). But there’s an even bigger bone of contention. Even ‘healthist’ experts disagree. In Britain, for example, the National Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, Professor Kevin Fenton, contradicted this approach as recently as July.

‘The evidence is clear that vaping is much less harmful than smoking and that e-cigarettes are helping many smokers to quit,’ he said – adding, ‘There is also no evidence so far that e-cigarettes are acting as a route into smoking for young people.’

In the circs, we can understand why the British vape and e-cigarette sector is keeping its head down in this debate. But, if Popla may say a word on behalf of these nicotine-steamers, Public Health England – for once – has a point. And we’d go further.

Nicotine may be an addictive substance on a par with coffee, but its effects on the metabolism are temporary and minimal. What’s more, it acts as a naturally-sourced appetite suppressant (no bad thing in the Age of Obesity) and is argued by a significant body of scientific opinion to be improve certain cognitive functions.

Every day, with the development of such products as IQos, the tobacco companies are improving the nicotine delivery-method known as vaping – to better mimic the sensation of smoking, while massively reducing the risks caused by inhaling the smoke from burnt organic material; and they should be encouraged.

The past often has lessons for the future. In this case, we could actually look to gin. After its invention in the 17th century, the dirt-cheap spirit caused havoc in families and communities. But ‘mother’s ruin’ wasn’t banned. Between them, government, consumers and producers worked together to ensure that a mildly harmful poison could be socialised. Nicotine delivery – previously in the form of tobacco smoke – has actually been part of British life for longer than gin. Why can’t we do the same?

by Winston Smith