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The nanny state’s coming war on vaping

One of the more depressing things about democracy, as a system of Government, is that banning things is very popular. Following the news that Australia is to ban most disposable vapes, which broke this week, our sometime friends over at the Journal ran a poll yesterday asking if vaping should be banned in Ireland: The results, predictably, were overwhelmingly in favour. Internet polls are not scientific – but on topics like this that are not, for the moment, issues of public controversy they do tend to capture the public mood reasonably well.

One of the reasons that banning things is so popular is that most things which are banned are not things that most people do, and most people usually only consider laws in terms of how the law might affect them. Imagine a law that banned, for example, drinking alcohol in a public place like a park or a street. Most people simply will not be affected by that, and the very few people who, for whatever reason, are really enthused about a few cans in the park will not be numerous enough to put up meaningful resistance. In almost every circumstance, the casual “yeah no harm in banning that” caucus will hugely outnumber the “this is an attack on something I like” resistance.

If you are a politician, then, every political incentive is towards petty illiberalism and the nanny state: You’ll get a good afternoon on Joe Duffy out of proposing to ban, say, music coming from ice cream vans, as former Senator Catherine Noone did a few years ago. The only people who are really likely to put up a fight against you are ice cream van drivers, and those very few of us who oppose the nanny state in principle.

Basically nobody, in other words. I write all this as a warning to my fellow vapers: They’re coming for you.

Read this wonderful bit of linguistic gymnastics, used in Australia to justify the ban, and familiarise yourself with it:

Vaping, seen as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and useful for helping smokers quit, involves heating a liquid that contains nicotine in what is called an e-cigarette and turning it into a vapour that users inhale.

However, studies have shown the potential of long-term harm from the addictive e-cigarettes.

The bit in bold is a work of art: Note that no studies have shown “long term harm”. What they have shown is the “potential” for long term harm. We’re now at the point where we can ban things because they might be dangerous. Already, the European Union is running a “public consultation” about whether to ban or severely restrict vaping. You can guess what the results will be.

Consider that in Ireland, we currently have a citizen’s assembly in place to “debate” (the inverted commas are deliberate) the legalisation of recreational drugs like cannabis, which have been proven to do long term harm. Alcohol and gambling, both of which carry long term risks of dependency and addiction, are legal. And yet, there are those who would ban vaping, which, at the time of writing, has no actual proof attached of long term harm.

Why the contradiction?The answer is very simple: Banning alcohol or gambling would break the rules I outlined above: A majority of people drink alcohol, and gambling is so widespread as to include a very large chunk of voters. There’s a risk banning those might backfire politically. Vaping, on the other hand? I’d be surprised if vapers make up more than 10% of the public. You can target us, and 90% of people will shrug, or agree, just because it doesn’t affect them.

And so, sooner or later (and likely sooner) this is going to arrive on our shores. Just remember that when it does, it will have basically nothing to do with public health, and almost everything to do with the fact that the public is generally in favour of banning things, just so long as the thing being banned doesn’t affect them. If you’re in that camp, though, just remember that there’s probably something you like that a majority doesn’t, and you’re always one slow news day away from an idiot politician deciding it’s time to put banning that thing on the table.

Violent computer games, maybe. Or home schooling. Or, with a bit of luck, “spreads” pretending to be butter. That one, I could support.


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