Dangerous, Unsafe, Safe, Safer, Safest?
What do these words mean to you? I mean, given that life inevitably leads to death, can life ever be safe? I know that we can make life safer – by taking care over the things we do, for example, or by not doing things that are patently dangerous, but who should decide what is unsafe, and what is safe to do? I was told from an early age not to put my fingers into an electric socket, so I don't for I understand that electricity can kill. But I learned from experience that electricity in small quantities is relatively harmless, so I will play around with 12-volt circuits quite happily. In certain situations, of course, even 12 volts can be harmful, but one learns the rules. This is mitigation of danger, or harm reduction, or choosing a safer option. No governmental body or agency has ever found it necessary to legislate and prevent me from tinkering with the electrics on my car, or indeed, with lightning if I wish.
So why are there people in the world determined to stop me inhaling nicotine, if that is what I choose to do? They let me drink coffee, or tea, or alcohol. They let me ride a bike, drive a car, go swimming, climb mountains, bungee jump or fly gliders. Nobody could possibly say that these have no dangers, but there are no laws to stop me, just rules for my guidance, to lessen the likelihood of harm. But nicotine? 'Thou must not!' seems to be the cry! And, should I reply, 'This is what I wish to do', I am declared an 'addict' and thought unfit to make rational decisions, it seems. I must face a barrage of propaganda, be lectured non-stop by medical practitioners, even dentists and opticians, as to the dangers of smoking. When that does not make me quit, public opinion is turned against me by propaganda that suggests my 'addiction' is killing my wife, my children, my neighbours, my workmates, the barmaid at the pub, and the family dog. Even when the evidence for this is flimsy, misleading, ambiguous and blatantly false, the lies must be continued, for someone has decided that smoking must be ended, once and for all, for the public good.
What can one do? Well, turn to safer alternatives; cleaner nicotine that has none of the toxins in smoke; patches, chewing gum or inhalers, but I don't find them helpful for they do not give me the 'buzz' that cigarettes do. But wait, what's this on the horizon? A method of taking a nip of nicotine without the dirty, toxic, carcinogenic chemicals I was warned of – an electronic cigarette! It's clean, it's hygienic, it smells good, it tastes good, it mimics the hand-to-mouth actions of smoking. It produces no smoke, it contains no tobacco, so it's legal to use indoors. At last, after fifty years of getting my nicotine from tobacco, I am free to enjoy it in a clean and fresh-smelling way, and it cannot harm my family, or the barmaids, or the dog! It seems I have found safe nicotine.
So, as I had been advised was good for me, I no longer smoke. My lungs have cleared, my blood pressure dropped, I have more energy, my clothes are fresh-smelling and so is my breath. I no longer go in fear of an early death because I am a non-smoker, and I have been told ad nauseam that non-smokers live for ever, whereas smokers die after as few as fifteen cigarettes.
But the euphoria is short-lived, for it was not my smoke that the puritans wanted to ban, that was just the excuse. Nor was it my smoking that they did not like, since that was only the visible sign of my failing. No, it is my consumption of nicotine that is the problem, and that must be expunged and exorcised from the world. No matter that what I do now is orders of magnitude safer than smoking, the army is already on the march, and only unconditional surrender will save me and my like from their retribution. No matter that nicotine is only as toxic and addictive as caffeine, and less so than alcohol, its association to smoking is too strong to be ignored. It must be banned, it must be highly regulated, to save me from myself. There is no longer any danger to those around me, for I do not smoke, but I exhale nicotine, and nicotine is in tobacco, so cannot possibly be safe, can it? Well, it seems that it is safe in tomatoes, and potatoes, and peppers, and aubergines, and cauliflowers, and probably in many other foodstuffs. It must also be safe in patches and gums and inhalers, else my doctor would not have prescribed them for me. But nobody can, or will, say that it is safe in the atmosphere, unlike traffic fumes, industrial fallout, natural and man-made pollution for which 'acceptable' and 'safe' levels have been set.
As if that argument were not silly enough, it seems that nicotine consumption must be expunged in order that no-one else will ever make the same 'mistake' that I did, and develop a taste for it. For that would lead inexorably to smoking tobacco, with all its dangers! In some strangely twisted logic, the argument goes, “People like nicotine, coffee, tea, sugar, alcohol, excitement etc. They seek more of what they enjoy – we can refer to this as 'addiction', especially when speaking of nicotine. Nicotine is associated with tobacco, but the others aren't, so can be ignored (for now!). To get nicotine out of tobacco, it is commonly smoked. The smoke is dangerous to health. Ban smoking where it may harm others, but tolerate it otherwise and collect taxes off the smoker. If nicotine can be consumed without smoking (which may be very much safer) we must ban it in case people enjoy it, for if they enjoy it, they will choose the most dangerous method of consumption! And our young people will be too stupid to take the safer option, so the option must be banned'. Problem solved!”
And so we have our 'Final Solution'. No matter how 'dangerous' smoking may be to the smoker, it is the 'unsafe' nature to the bystander of 'passive smoking' that prompted a ban in public places. But a 'safer' option like e-cigarettes cannot be absolutely guaranteed to be 'safe', so the 'safest' option is to ban the very thing that offers the best solution ever found to the problem of smoking, and ride roughshod over public opinion to do it. However, this too is far from being 'safe', since there are now over two million former smokers who have taken the step to safer alternatives, and many more current smokers who might, and they are all voters. If you are a politician in anything other than the safest seat, be afraid, be very afraid!