E-Cigarettes vs. The State


E-cigs have soared in popularity. In town last week, I counted 8 cigarettes but e-cigs weren’t far behind, counting 7. They’re also incredibly cheap and they seem to help people to quit smoking normal cigarettes. What’s not to like?

To begin, I can say, with reasonable confidence, that e-cigs are in no way harmful. Yet, there are some groups (which are closely tied either to the tobacco industry or to the state) who are uttering that immortal phrase: e-cigs are ‘completely unregulated’. From 2001 to 2007, the phrase appears 153 times in the British newspaper press[1]. It has become a synonym for ‘risky’ or ‘shady’ and the public now no doubt attach many more similar meanings to it. But what ‘unregulated’ means is that, when two parties choose to trade, they can do so in whatever way they like.

A week ago, I recall the BBC saying that ‘scientists claim that we do not fully know the risks and benefits of using e-cigarettes.’ Well, there are two short answers and two long answers to that. The first short answer is Bollocks! The second short answer is Well, Duh! I’ll now expand on these two interjections.

The first short answer can be expanded to say that there are, as yet, no papers – to my knowledge – which have concluded that e-cigarettes are dangerous. In fact, I can point you in the direction of one paper which has said the exact opposite. The second short answer is just common sense: of course we don’t know the full list of risks and the full list of benefits for e-cigs, and we never will. Empirical science is not only often incorrect, but it can never truly be perfected. Therefore, to say that ‘we don’t know all the risks of XYZ’ is to insult the intelligence of those listening to you. Not only do we not know all the risks and benefits of e-cigs, but we don’t know all the risks and benefits of smoking normal cigarettes. But, we do have a fairly good idea: we know the risks of normal smoking – tar ingestion, passive smoking, cancer etc.; we also know the effects of inhaling water vapour – certainly not cancer.

Yet, not everyone is happy. The cigarette companies for instance will be very unhappy to see their faithful customers leave them one by one, and in quick succession. So, what might they try to do? Is it so difficult to believe that they might be privately, secretly, lobbying to get e-cigarettes banned? They have a motive, and they certainly have ample opportunities as it’s not unheard of that the regulated might also be the same people, or be well-connected to, the regulators.  And so, the tobacco industry has an interest in minimising the amount of sales of e-cigs and their means of doing this is the state.

The state also has a self-interest: to maximise its own income. It will inevitably start taxing e-cigarettes. Will it also regulate them? I think not. Doing this would lead to less economic activity, and, after all, without economic activity there would be nothing to tax. There might be some regulation in order to give a few people jobs in the Department of Health and to increase state power. But, there will be no actual attempt to enforce these regulations and the phenomenon of “regulatory capture” will happen soon enough.

In order to satisfy the tobacco industry, the state will strike some sort of balance between taxation and regulation, though the emphasis will undoubtedly be on taxation. Alternatively, the tax may be levied at such a high rate as to keep sales of e-cigs at roughly the same amount, raise a good deal of money for HM Treasury, and to also increase profits for the tobacco industry. Make no mistake though, it is not about health[2],[3].

  • Dick_Puddlecote

    You’re correct that it isn’t about health, but then tobacco control long since departed from that raison d’etre. You’re not correct that it is the tobacco industry who are most motivated to move against e-cigs, though, in fact quite the opposite.

    Tobacco companies are buying into e-cigs as quickly as they can and for good reason. They offer a perfect exit strategy from tobacco before it is banned entirely (which is just a matter of time). Pharmaceutical companies, however, are a different matter. They currently profit massively from useless patches and gum which are seriously threatened by e-cigs - they are also deeply intertwined with the tobacco control industry after funding and sponsoring them for years. It’s about money and it is Big Pharma who is desperately trying to eliminate a powerful competitor for the alternative nicotine market. Tobacco control are merely the puppet they use to protect their profits.

    • Keir Martland

      I had forgotten about Big Pharma and how it could be worked into an explanation of the regulation of e-cigs - and I’m kicking myself. Thanks for the response.

Sign up for The Libertarian Newsletter

* = required field