Friday, 5 April 2013

E-cigs and intoxication

E-cigarettes have become a huge issue in the past year or so.  I’m particularly exposed to this through work – both because they’re understood as a harm reduction device, which links in with drug and alcohol treatment, but also because one of my colleagues is cutting down on ‘real’ cigarettes by using ‘falsies’.

On Twitter, it would be impossible for me not to notice Gerry Stimson, figurehead of UK harm reduction, extolling the virtues of ‘vape-ing’.  The benefits are obvious (and somewhat similar to why getting someone onto a methadone prescription rather than injecting street heroin might be considered positive): you can satisfy the craving for nicotine, and in a way that helps psychologically, with the same action as ‘real’ smoking, but without many of the dangers, which arise from the burning and inhaling of the tobacco.

The idea has been picked up in the media too with the obligatory ‘smoke’ and ‘fire’ headlines.  Tom Riddington and Lionel Shriver have taken contrasting positions in The Guardian, and The Economist has come down somewhat in favour of them.

All these articles make their own valid points, and there are lots of issues to do with regulation and competition that are important to consider.  Riddington is right to wonder whether vapeing is really safe, but The Economist’s conclusion – that there should be regulation and they should only be sold through licensed outlets – is not quite as straightforward as it seems.  As Clive Bates (via Stimson) has pointed out, too much regulation would hamper the industry and potentially make e-cigarettes less attractive to smokers, defeating the harm reduction message.  On the other hand, if bad consequences were discovered, however small, big tobacco would no doubt use this to its own advantage, trumpeting its (current, enforced) honesty about the dangers of tobacco in comparison to the e-cig manufacturers who touted their product as ‘safe’ smoking.

I can’t navigate through all this to a definitive position, but what interests me about the debate, and the innovation in itself, is Lionel Shriver’s point: that what is really being condemned is pleasure in intoxication.  This is no new thing.  As I have argued before (and will again soon in a slightly different way at the Under Control conference), a key part (in fact the only consistent part) of the definition of ‘binge’ drinking under both Labour and Coalition governments has been people’s motivation for drinking: to get drunk.  This desire for intoxication is what is condemned, with its accompanying ‘different culture’ from the everyday.  This is about a particular morality of government, as academics including Fiona Measham and Karenza Moore and Henry Yeomans have also suggested.  This is why, even if they were proved to have no harmful effects whatsoever, the government would find it hard to cope with e-cigarettes: the very idea of intoxication troubles them (and most authorities).*

There is a whole range of analysis about the Protestant work ethic and productiveness that could be done here – and Henry’s done plenty on this already, and anything on eighteenth-century coffee houses might well still apply for the general middle-class productiveness argument.  What I’m interested in, though, is how this could relate to actual (or potential) smokers or ‘vapers’.

It could be argued that the desire for (or at least attraction of) intoxication is widely spread across the animal kingdom, and therefore this is something of a ‘natural’ urge.  However, as any good sociologist will tell you, we live in a world where we construct meanings around certain behaviours.  Pierre Bourdieu, who’s indirectly been in the news this week thanks to Mike Savage and Fiona Devine (amongst others), pointed out that the meanings we construct around food, for example, relate to our standing in society, reflecting a reinforcing it.  In simplistic terms: working class = food as fuel; bourgeoisie = food as a culture, or almost art.  This is particularly striking with today’s food shows on the one hand and food banks on the other, if you believe Suzanne Moore.

I’ve argued before that these ideas can be applied to alcohol: some people drink to get drunk, and others distance themselves from that idea, claiming that they drink for taste or go out for atmosphere and dancing and so forth – or don’t intend to get drunk, but it’s something that ‘just happens’.  This might (though not always) entail different behaviour.  These different groups (or so I argued in my PhD) reflect and reinforce class groups.

Therefore, we know that, despite the apparent universal animal urge, within and between societies, there are different norms around drunkenness, meaning that not everybody acts the same way when they’re intoxicated.  They don’t all get the same pleasures from drinking.  Some of the pleasure of intoxication is for many (all?) people bound up with ideas of transgression – one might even say the carnivalesque**, turning the world upside down for a moment or two.

What’s all this got to do with e-cigs?  Well, for most people smoking in the UK today, they’ll have grown up knowing the habit is bad for you – it’ll quite likely even kill you.***  I can’t help but think that this is somehow tied up with the attraction of cigarettes: the rebelliousness, the live fast die young ethic, and sometimes a nostalgia for a time that was less safety conscious.  There’s something about the prevalence of smoking in films and TV shows like Good Night, and Good Luck or Mad Men that seems to outstrip the actual prevalence (around 40% through the 1960s in the USA).  Admittedly this is an artistic device to signify that the action we’re watching is from a different time, and my perspective is precisely that of someone who is likely to be taken aback by the very image of someone smoking in an office, but in some ways these points only highlight the key insight: that smoking has something otherworldly about it, something ‘different’ or transgressive.

Perhaps smoking occupies a unique spot in the balance of ‘transgressive’ but not too dangerous.  It’s legal, but it’s known to be harmful at any dosage.  Simply smoking at all is demonstrating something of a devil-may-care attitude (or recklessness, irrationality or weakness of will depending on your perspective).  As Lionel Shriver suggests, with e-cigs: ‘You miss dancing on the dark side – the risk, that hint of wickedness. But since your detractors can't have kittens any more, you get something in return: glee.’

The e-cigarette might give the former smoker (now vaper) a hint of ‘glee’, but it wouldn’t have the same danger and glamour.  In fact, if Shriver and others are right, it would simply be intoxication without danger.  Healthy intoxication.  Now there’s a contrast.  Confusing for government, as I’ve already said, but also confusing for everyone else – and perhaps unique at a time when alcohol – even without drunkenness – is increasingly presented as risky in itself.  Who would choose intoxication without risk and transgression, and is such a thing possible in a society like ours?

The possibilities for changing the terms of debate around drugs and alcohol are fascinating.  E-cigs can’t quite become simply ‘responsible’ smoking, like an expensive bottle of red at a dinner party can be dressed up as ‘responsible’ drinking, if there’s nothing to an e-cig except intoxication; there’s no e-cig Malcolm Gluck – or could there be?  ‘Responsible’ intoxication, in the same way that ‘responsible’ drinking becomes not about content but intent.  Health-conscious hedonists.  But this would still be a twist on the Bourdieusian claim that high-status taste is all about distance from necessity/materiality.  ‘Falsies’ for the dinner party but still ‘real’ cigarettes outside the pub?  Maybe another study on intoxication and distinction beckons…

* There’s plenty of points that could be made here about rationality, understanding citizens and self-government (referencing Foucault especially), but I’ll save them for another, more academic, time.
** OK, so I was saying this back in the PhD, but I’ll still link to Hackley et al because I’m generous like that.  I actually have a slightly different take on things, which I’ll be talking about more at the Under Control conference, so do come along…
*** I’m not referencing these points, but comment if you think I’m mistaken or being misleading.

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