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Why E-Cigarettes Cannot Be Stopped


This article was originally written as a response within an ongoing debate with Bill Godshall over at ECF:
ECF - Legislation News - NJoy-Godshall-UK legislation

It became too long for a forum post, then too long for a blog post...  It concerns the current situation being a technology change point and how this invalidates the usual 'rules' about how commercial interests can suppress or remove competitors.

Nobody knows what the future will bring - except when a technology change occurs. In that case the result is a foregone conclusion because only the timescale can be affected, and it seemed useful to lay out the reasoning behind this. One argument is that the war on drugs apparently cannot be stopped, and the war on ecigs will go the same way: a permanent war for reasons that are unclear and have no relation to health. The ecig situation is radically different in many ways, because after a technology change point occurs, the old ways are swept away; because the public cannot be fooled into thinking nicotine is harmful forever; and because prohibition ultimately cannot work - legislation designed to protect the old system just puts prices up until it collapses under pressure.

Why this situation is different

Admittedly, things are complicated - but it looks as if we are at a technology change point, and the thing about such changes are that they are impossible to prevent once the new technology is widely known. It doesn't matter if a government wants to hang on to the old technology in order to preserve the status quo, they cannot stop progress. If they fight hard enough they can delay the changeover, but that is the limit of their power.

So although there are similarities to the war on drugs, because it concerns a delivery system for a substance, there are probably more differences than similarities.

- The substance in question is a dietary component that many appear to need supplementation of. It doesn't matter how much propaganda is published to try and hide that; the basic fact is that nicotine is a normal dietary ingredient that a percentage of the population will apparently always require supplementation of, and have every right to [1].

- The population as a whole don't view nicotine consumers in the same way as illicit drug consumers. There is far more tolerance to them (essentially, smokers are considered normal but a nuisance, and perhaps weak-willed). The propaganda, by attacking smoking, has cleverly obscured the fact they are about identical to coffee and tea consumers in intent; but once the prospect of removing smoking but continuing with nicotine is viable due to technological advances, it becomes much harder to demonise the consumers. There is, after all, no basis for denormalisation of nicotine consumers: everyone consumes it. It is far more natural than coffee, tea or alcohol consumption - these are not part of the everyday diet and closely associated with the B vitamin group, as is nicotine.

- The population will be far more sympathetic to smokers wishing to 'quit' and move to a safe form of consumption than they will be to commercially-motivated government-supported bans of the new delivery system. It's a propaganda war of course, to influence public opinion to either support a ban of the new technology for fabricated reasons, or to allow it because millions of lives will be saved; but we now have enough support and enough funds to play, where before it was left entirely to the big commercial players.

- Above all, this is a technology change point, and things will never be the same again. It actually doesn't matter about any external influences or other factors, at such a point. The timescale to a majority changeover to the new technology can be affected - but not the ultimate result. Hand weaving gave way to the mechanical loom, stagecoaches gave way to the railways, sailing ships gave way to steamships; and tubes of burning vegetable matter will give way to electronic personal vapourisers. It doesn't matter at the change point how much money is spent on resisting the new technology, the old ways are finished from that point on. Who won: the Luddites or your jeans from Bangladesh?

- There are always commercial players behind any war. There are no wars that someone isn't pushing hard for, and modern wars are commercially-driven. What you see on the surface is always the ideology or political expediency, but behind it all there is always some sort of commercial motive otherwise the war would never happen in the first place, or would rapidly peter out. The war on ecigs of course is commercially driven (what you see is the footsoldiers, the idealists, but they wouldn't get far without funding - and the funders are the ones in control). The big commercial players generally win these wars; but this time round is different: they are fighting a radical technology change, and that's a war they can't win. As an example, it was impossible to stop the advance of the machine loom in order to protect existing income channels except in remote areas such as Harris Island in the Outer Hebrides; the tweed hand weavers survived but that doesn't solve the problem because everywhere else changes and it's a done deal.

Regulation: can it block new technology?

The simple answer to that question is no. It never has so far; although the timescale of the changeover can be extended.

- Countries that are basically dictatorships of one kind or another will ban e-cigarettes in order to protect State revenues or approved industries (which is about the same thing). This will not affect progress externally, which will continue; it will eventually affect policy in the totalitarian state concerned, as they will then need to escalate prohibition to a possession law, and when 20% of citizens are acting illegally it becomes difficult to enforce laws. The law tends to change because the people's view of the law changes from acceptance for the greater good to despising it as corrupt. Politicians don't want citizens as a whole despising the law otherwise the population cannot be controlled at all, and it becomes easier to cut your losses and accept change rather than lose the whole game.

- Democratised countries in the West (this is not the same thing as 'freedom', it's just different from left or right dictatorships) will impose laws / regulations / restrictions to protect state income and approved industries. An outright ban is not normally possible for something harmless because there is too much resistance to that from elements within the political process. Taking the UK as an example, regulations will be imposed that could range from the least restrictive (minor additional consumer regulations that remove about 10% of products) to the most restrictive (full medicalisation and removal of 99.999% of products). The situation is highly complex because in effect the EU is the federal authority and the UK is a state within a federation, so that there are two sets of laws and two sets of ongoing processes that interact (something like the US federal-State system). It is likely that full medicalisation would be overturned since there is a 100% record of courts doing so when a challenge is brought; but the crucial thing to note is that the EU/UK will not be able to impose a total ban on e-cigarettes - and this leaves a vital wedge in place.

- As long as there is a continuing source of supply in some form (such as highly restricted consumer products or highly restricted medical products), new consumers will always be exposed to the products.

- By definition, regulated products are obsolete products, in a rapidly-changing fairly new market. As an example, millions of users would not accept artificial imposition of a requirement to use an old Walkman CD player when iPods are available; this will apply even more in the case of modern products seen as a lifesaver.

- The black market will fill in for supply of efficient, modern products. There will be a userbase of 1 million in the UK, 4 million or so total in the EU for such products from the get-go - that is, if prohibition came into effect tomorrow. Since it cannot be introduced until 2016, in some form, then we are looking at a minimum EU userbase of 10 million for perfectly legitimate, safe products, to be used as a replacement for a product with a reported 50% risk of death and much higher risk of illness (for continuing smokers). Try suppressing that.

- It has already been well-demonstrated that border controls cannot stop prohibited items in the UK, which is probably the easiest country to block the borders of in the western world (it's an island with no land borders, of comparatively small size compared to many other countries, and with administrative systems as efficient as is possible). If drugs and guns cannot be stopped, if tax-unpaid alcohol cannot be stopped, and if smuggled tobacco cannot be stopped to the extent that it comprises 50% to 100% of the market in some areas, then you certainly can't stop harmless products that the population will eventually have a great deal of sympathy for. If effective border controls cannot be implemented in a comparatively easy country to do such a thing then it can't be done anywhere. Government could increase the border control budget by a factor of 10 in order to improve interception by 50% or so; it is still pointless, and that level of investment cannot continue against mounting criticism.

- Because the basic concept will be found valid by new consumers (smokers interested in switching), who trial the basic legal models and find them acceptable though lacking in performance, and because there will be an unstoppable black market in efficient and attractive products, more people will gradually shift to the better products while at the same time more consumers are coming in via the legal products. The idea that flavours can be banned for e-cigarettes, in an attempt to limit their acceptability, is simply not possible; the black market will become larger than the legal market if these kinds of groundless restrictions are imposed.

- The userbase for ecigs will continue to grow (though slower than with a derestricted market). Eventually at least 50% of smokers will switch [2].

- Only the timescale is affected by legislation designed to stop a process of technology change. Some countries might ban ecigs, some might restrict them, some might allow them as normal consumer products, and some might even allow them unrestricted (probably developing countries that have no real administrative systems). The end result cannot be changed: the new technology will replace the old.

- In 30 year's time smoking will be on the way out in the West, no matter what the regulatory climate is (by which is meant that in many countries smoking prevalence will be below 10%, due to e-cigarette use replacing smoking). It will probably happen within 20 years, because people are now extremely receptive to the benefits of new technology.


Acceleration
However, as you may have noticed, I have had to continually revise my timescales forward and much earlier than previously estimated, because the ecig phenomenon is gathering speed rather than slowing down. Without appreciation of the technology changeover issue, I always assumed the uptake graph would start to level out from its steep incline; this turned out to be wrong [3]. So 30 years might be way too long for this to happen, even with a deliberately restrictive regulatory climate designed to protect the old industries and revenues (the cigarette trade, the drugs trade to treat the sick, and the vast associated revenues). Even 20 years is looking too long at this point - 15 years could be the sort of scale involved.
 

Sweden's male smoking prevalence will be 5% by around 2016, after all [4]. With the new-technology effect of e-cigarettes, other countries will eventually be able to achieve this incredibly low smoking prevalence level.

It certainly looks as if smokers welcome the choice; what governments want is not relevant to the eventual result.


 


[1] There has been an interesting process running that might possibly have resulted in the elimination of the gene concerned, but which didn't work out: if some people need more nicotine, then if a delivery system is allowed/promoted that kills half of those people, perhaps you can eventually eliminate the gene responsible. It seems, though, that a core pool remains at about 25% who would need to have a much more efficient removal system applied to them to reduce their numbers to near zero.

[2] Because 50% of smokers already switched to Snus in Sweden (or, 50% of the expected smoking population are Snus users and may have started with Snus instead of cigarettes - which is the same thing, for this purpose), and because e-cigarettes are more popular than Snus where both are sold unrestricted, we might expect that perhaps 60% of smokers will eventually become ecig users instead.

[3] Blucigs/Lorillard are on track to post a $250m gross (and probably bigger) in their first year of combined operations ($112m posted for the first 6 months), compared to Blucig's last full year before takeover of around $35m. Now although this certainly illustrates the boost a major B&M distribution channel can give to a regular ecig player, there is also a large market growth component in there. Ecig takeup is accelerating, not slowing down.

[4] Sweden, male smoking prevalence: 2003, 17%; 2013, 8% (falling at around 1% per year currently), so that 5% will be reached very soon. However this is measured with the usual 'past month' figure; the 'daily smoker' figure will be smaller (perhaps 3% or 4%). This is a phenomenal (and unique) achievement, and what the anti-THR campaigners are so desperate to prevent elsewhere.