The Deadly and Illiberal E-Cigarette Advertising Ban Must be Scrapped | Charles Amos

A great benefit of advertising is it informs consumers of the advantages of various products. Customers are thereby able to make better choices as to which goods will best satisfy their wants. To ban advertising needlessly makes consumers relatively ill-informed. This is the situation the prohibition on e-cigarette advertising, across television, radio and the internet, has plunged the British public into since 2016. And, unlike not knowing there’s a two-for-one deal on Sugar Puffs, this advertising ban comes with deadly consequences. A bold claim – but one the following justifies.                                                          

Vaping is one of the best means to help those who want to give up smoking quit the habit for good. Various randomised control trials have found smokers who vape are twice as likely to give up compared to the placebo group. Indeed, a recent 2021 study by King’s College London found even more extraordinary results, finding e-cigarette users were five times more likely to quit smoking for a month compared to those who used no quitting aids at all. The evidence for vaping being a substitute for smoking is strong.

Contrary to popular opinion vaping is also significantly safer than smoking. In 2016 the Royal College of Physicians found the health risks of vaping `are unlikely to exceed 5%` of regular smoking. No doubt this is due to the fact the level of toxicants in e-cigarette vapour is some `9-450 times lower than in cigarette smoke`. None of the carcinogens found in tobacco have yet been found in vaping either. Yes, e-cigarettes still contain addictive nicotine, but this is a relatively harmless substance in itself.

Put together, these facts show vaping is a safe substitute to smoking. Given the opportunity to advertise this fact the e-cigarette industry would certainly do so.  This advertising would encourage smokers to quit smoking and take up vaping. The result: fewer smokers and more vapers. Given the health benefits of quitting smoking, this advertising-induced substitution would result in fewer deaths from smoking. Advertising would save lives! The reverse is therefore equally true. Government currently increases the number of deaths due to smoking because businesses aren’t allowed to prominently advertise a relatively harmless substitute i.e. the e-cigarette.   

An objection to this line of argument is the gateway theory of e-cigarettes. This theory suggests consumers which wouldn’t otherwise take up smoking are introduced to the habit by vaping. This theory would suggest advertising will actually increase net smoking uptake. No doubt some who otherwise wouldn’t have taken up smoking may do so due to vaping advertising. But in aggregate, the evidence still suggests the net effect of vaping is to reduce smoking rates. From 2007-2012 smoking prevalence fell by just 0.5%, yet from 2012, when e-cigarettes went mainstream, to 2016, smoking prevalence fell by 4.3% to 15.8%.

Nonetheless, let’s assume the net effect of vaping advertising is, as per the gateway theory, to increase smoking and thus smoking-related deaths. Would the government therefore be warranted in banning e-cigarette advertising, to reduce deaths? No, for the principle on which such a prohibition would rest proves too much. Advertising cakes and biscuits probably contributes to obesity, and obesity causes over 30,000 deaths every year. Yet a ban on advertising such products would strike most as totally objectionable – but this policy is required to reduce deaths.

In fact the logic goes further still. Many popular cinema characters make smoking look cool. For example, James Bond’s smoking is associated with defeating villains and meeting sexy ladies, undoubtedly adding to its allure. This probably increases cigarette demand, and hence increases smoking-related deaths. But if banning visual media is allowed for advertising to reduce deaths, it follows that movies which have the same effect should be prohibited (or partly-censured) also.

Indeed, the preceding reasoning would even stop individuals from speaking of the benefits of vaping to others. Doing so would make the activity more attractive, and by (false) assumption, increase uptake and therefore deaths via the gateway theory. If minimising deaths is the overriding priority then it follows the state may force you to stop speaking. So too could the state prohibit you from urging your friend to have another pint over the recommended intake, for this increases their chances of alcohol-related death.

Clearly, the logical conclusion of prohibiting vaping advertising on the (false) assumption it increases deaths, and hence must be stopped to minimise deaths, is the abolition of free speech. It’s simply not possible to prohibit commercial expression without the argument extending to prohibiting everyday speech too. Such a conclusion is unacceptable and therefore the premise on which it rests, that the government should use force to minimise deaths from consumption-related causes, must be totally rejected.In a free society companies must be able to express themselves however they like. The benefits of advertising are enormous and, more importantly, advertising is protected by our individual rights. The current ban on e-cigarette advertising is a fatal restriction on free speech, and as such, it must be abolished immediately. To favour the status quo is simply to see more death and less liberty – a situation I’m sure nobody could possibly want.

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