On the long, long flight back from Brazil last week I read Calestous Juma’s new book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.* It occurred to me that vaping (electronic cigarettes) is also a disruptive technology. We often think of disruptive technology being information technology – but this is just a plain old fashioned improvement in technology. People who want to consume nicotine now have a safer means of ingesting it – not having to inhale burning material. In this sense vaping is similar to nicotine gum and nicotine lozenges and dissimilar to combustible cigarettes.
So far, so good. This is hardly rocket science and I suspect many people have realised this. But, wait, there is more.
It is not just traditional suppliers of nicotine that are being disrupted here. There is the entire tobacco control industry that could be disrupted too. All those organisations that gain their revenue from government combating tobacco use and all those individuals who earn a very good living by staffing the organisations that combat tobacco use – they are going to be disrupted too. As such it is unsurprising that we’re seeing the tobacco control industry so opposed to vaping.
The medicines regulator has been asked to exempt nicotine from the Schedule 7 dangerous poisons list, at concentrations of 3.6 per cent or less, to try to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.
Dozens of academics and researchers have written to the Therapeutic Goods Administration in support of the application, calling for the ban to be lifted – including a top Cancer Council researcher.
Ron Borland argued the current laws were difficult to defend – a position at odds with the Cancer Council which is vehemently opposed to e-cigarettes.
Of course, their livelihoods are at stake. They have mortgages to pay just like everyone else.
But now it becomes apparent that tobacco control in a world of vaping (and nicotine gum and nicotine lozenges) is a just a form of industry protection. By regulating vaping as being equivalent to combustible cigarettes the government isn’t promoting health or protecting individuals from their choices but it is protecting the livelihoods of activists.
Policy should target harm and not industry. Nobody would ever express concern about the airline industry or automobile industry making its product safer – neither should the tobacco industry be criticised for making its product safer. Nowhere in the consultation document is there an explanation provided, or a logical argument advanced, as to why electronic cigarettes should be considered any different from any other nicotine delivery technology. It is simply assumed that electronic cigarettes are similar to combustible cigarettes and that they are dissimilar to as gum, patches, or lozenges. The consultation document asserts:
It has been suggested that the availability of these products could undermine current tobacco control initiatives.
To the extent that almost anything is possible this statement is trivially true. Yet the existence of other nicotine delivery technologies has not undermined tobacco control. In fact, they are considered to be integral to tobacco control. What electronic cigarettes are likely to do, however, is undermine the tobacco control industry. Those individuals and institutions that earn their living from combatting “bad nicotine” or exist to combat “bad nicotine” while promoting “good nicotine” face technological disruption just as have the print media, the taxi industry, the accommodation industry, and so on. Incumbents resisting new innovation and technology is not rare nor unknown.
* I also watched Captain America: Civil War and American Sniper. Both excellent movies.