I’m fascinated by e-cigarettes. In case you haven’t seen them, they look just like real fags, weigh a bit more, and have a light that glows when you puff on them. Instead of inhaling tobacco smoke, you drag on, and exhale, vapour imbued with a touch of nicotine. They work in the same way as asthma inhalers. The potential for them is vast.
The sensation is very similar to smoking, down to the nicotine hit and the feel and look of puffing on a fag. But they’re almost completely harmless – the medical comparison is to drinking a cup of coffee.
Smokers tell me there’s still something missing from the sensation – perhaps the smell of tobacco, or the weight of the e-cig, or the missing ritual of lighting and burning. But as the industry matures it will approximate these sensations better.
What’s revolutionary, of course, aside from the health issue, is that you can ‘smoke’ them indoors – on planes and trains, in pubs, at a party, at work. They’re cheaper than tobacco in most western countries too.
E-cigs have the potential to transform utterly the social habits of smokers, with hugely beneficial knock on effects. Last time I was in a pub three-quarters of the punters were huddled outside the door in the pouring rain. No wonder pubs are going bust left right and centre as smokers stay at home and watch the X Factor with a can of lager instead of going out.
So the pub and restaurant trades stand to benefit alongside people’s health and wealth. Britain could become a much happier, more sociable and cohesive place all round.
But already the forces of puritanism are gathering, as I wrote here. Health lobbyists are scrambling to find any evidence, however tenuous, that e-cigs are bad for you and others round you. Some companies have already banned them from the workplace simply because they look a bit like cigarettes and are distracting.
It can be rather disconcerting to see somebody ‘vaping’ indoors, and the ban brigade could well try to pounce before these take off.
That would be a tragedy.