[Investigative Journalism] Legalizing the electronic puff

A week ago, a reader wrote in and shared with us FactAsia’s recently-released publications on e-cigarettes, namely Public Health England’s research done on e-cigs being a “less harmful alternative” and a consumer survey conducted among smokers in Singapore to understand their attitudes and opinions towards the product [you can find it here].

We want to thank the reader for the initiative and suggesting an interesting topic for us to write about 🙂

Correction: E-cigarette ban will take effect this year from 15 December.

Some say that it is a healthier alternative in comparison to your atypical rolled cigarettes, that it can possibly help one to quit smoking for good (google “e-cigs help” and there’s a whole list of testimonials and so-called research claims ascertaining that).

Others say that the trend has brought about more harm to society, it being another Big Tobacco’s attempt to glamorize the puff “less harmful than smoking” this time with a panel of scientists and engineers, perhaps to convert their existing users and rein in new ones, notably observed in the adolescents community. Then, there is another set of scientific claims revealing other chemicals in the vapor that can kill you even without the tobacco.

alcohol
Click image to magnify

In 2013, the government widened the ban on smoking in public areas. Shisha smoking was entirely banned last November. Emerging tobacco/nicotine products were banned last December. This year, we have the new liquor law – no consumption of alcohol in public places after 10:30PM. We’re then briefly informed of where the government is coming from for enacting such unwelcoming laws towards “vice” products: that it generally promotes the well-being and health of citizens.

The points I understood from FactAsia’s articles on e-cigs are that:

(1) there is a demand for it

(2) it being a reduced-risk alternative for smokers (remains as a highly-disputed claim, although there is a general consensus among research that e-cigs kill you slightly slower than conventional cigs)

(3) underlying assumption that more smokers will switch to e-cigs for good due to knowing (2)

The question is: why should government restrict a “less harmful alternative to cigarettes” that promotes the general health of the (ex-)smokers?

Smokers vs. non-smokers

Should e-cigs be legalized and presumably future statistics indicate that it indeed is a reduced-risk alternative, this would mean positive outcomes for the smokers community and perhaps for potential ones who are now diverted to e-cigs instead of conventional cigs. They are now less susceptible to tobacco smoke tainted lungs and related diseases.

On the flip side, we should never forget about the impact it will have on the general community who were unaffected in the first place. From the beginning of time, smokers and non-smokers have conflicting interests – non-smokers are always contending for intervention programmes and partition areas specific for smokers in public places [here].

“E-cigs leading our children to smoking…”

“Little-no evidence of E-ciggs users being first-time smokers…”

Source: Public Health England

All over the internet, we’re seeing contesting claims by various health authorities to whether the new alternative to the “vice” products category had a positive/negative impact on the numbers.

Should the state accede to the demands of potential/existing e-cigs consumers or not have it in the market at all because the tempting nature of e-cigs (hi-tech and “in”) that may get non-smokers hooked on its nicotine? Instead of its intended purpose for smokers by providing them with a healthier alternative and possibly get them to quit smoking.

Free Choice and State Intervention

What ought to be within the state’s intervention and what ought not to be remains questionable. I guess most of us can agree that the expected role of the government is to ensure the society functions harmoniously, rights are not violated and they are given the legitimacy to “mandate” conflicting interests of different groups in the society. In recent times, this role has expanded and we see some of these interventions as necessary to ensure the society’s functionality, e.g. tax, pollution laws for businesses.

As countries develop, rights have also expanded such as the right to basic necessities, where this right is automatically carted to the government’s list of responsibilities. Once basic needs are met, there comes the movements to bring about the rights to education, then to free speech and consumer choice. Some of these rights are taken away or closely-surveilled by the State like the right to information; theoretically, these laws are purposed to “contain” conflicts and tensions and that they do not bring harm to the particular society.

  • Government Paternalism

Should the justification for state intervention be the ignorance of the consumers to make their own decisions? Most of the time, it isn’t simply the case of “consumers vs. government”. Within the consumer group, there are segregated groups with conflicting interests and concerns, then it becomes “consumer group A vs. consumer group B vs. activist group vs. government”.

Should the government assume the negative consequences of the usage of a particular product on society and use its assumptions for justification to not legalize it? The future is unforeseeable, should the government allow all products in society and only intervene when consequences are dire and noticeable in society?

How is the government going to know what’s good for us without asking its people and conducting its research to determine and measure the impact across societies? I think what citizens need from the decisions made by the government is accountability – how convincing the justification is to ban something due to its (very-)detrimental impact on society.

Liberality in modern times has its impact on state intervention, generally how laws are created or have been released to legalize something. People are becoming more vocal, we have more platforms to vent our concerns and activism efforts are becoming more visible, hard to ignore. The impact today’s ideals and values have on state decisions is massive because of our voices. Occasionally, the government do address the unhappiness and critics to their policies. I guess we’re also becoming less scathing of criticisms from others and come up with our own, that is also to say that if you have something to say, it means you care.

Today, state intervention in industries and in the realm of decisions we make in our daily lives have increased. But it doesn’t mean that the citizen’s freedom is limited to have the laws coming into the picture in everything we do. Often, citizens’ voices are heard for the state to intervene in that particular area.

You could either see state intervention as an extension to the rights of minorities, that some of these groups are given special entitlements due to a less-fortunate, OR… that your freedom to treat everyone similarly (e.g. in a employer-employee setting) is now being constrained by the law. Or even both.

There are always multiple perspectives to how you see a situation. Some of us are hopeful that what the state does is a conscientious effort to promote good in the society, while others are more critical about the motives of state intervention, it being an attempt to sustain an ideology, maintain status-quo as to keep power in place, etc. But it’s never wrong to adopt either or both of these perspectives. Objectivity is to see through the lens of every party and rationally consider about their intentions from every lens.

Written by: SY

To check out our other post on e-cigarettes:

Investigative Journalism: The never-ending “smokeless” health confusion over e-cigarettes

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Will increasing the smoking age to 21 & tobacco media control be a “smokeless” difference?

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