Would Aristotle Vape?

As I surfaced the other day, there was a discussion on Today about the marketing of e-cigarattes between Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, and Lorien Jollye of the New Nicotine Alliance (now there‘s an organisation that wears its heart on its sleeve!).  It’s available from about the 1:22 mark here.  Having re-listened, it appears to me that they’re talking past each other for a significant amount of time; but the points around which they’re at least orbiting has to do with the safety of e-cigarettes and the permissibility of advertising for them.  Arnott’s concern is not so much about whether using e-cigs – which I believe the well-informed call “vaping” – can be shown in adverts, but how.  Jollye’s claim is that all that matters is whether and that the devices reduce levels of smoking across the board.  The subtext here is that the tone of the advertising possibly doesn’t matter – but if it does matter, and making the devices more attractive gets smokers to make the switch, then so much the better.

Arnott’s response here is that if e-cigs can lure smokers, they can presumably lure non-smokers, too.  And it does seem initially plausible that if the point is to coax smokers rather than non-smokers, it could be done in a non-glamorous way. emphasising the grimness of smoking-related illness and the relative benefits of vaping.  Glamour seems to be an attempt to be appealing to non-smokers as well.

Does that matter, though?

Let’s take it as read that, if e-cigs are harmful, they are pretty minimally harmful, and not significantly more harmful than a good number of other things that we take as part of everyday life.  That is, after all, their major selling-point: as far as we know, they don’t give you cancer with anything like the certainty that their leafy cousins do.  That means that smokers who want to stop smoking can minimise the health risk of their addiction, giving them time to wean themselves from the addictive drug at their leisure – if, indeed, they choose to do so at all.  If they can get the hit from nicotine with negligible risk, but are happy to remain as nicotine users or addicts, then bully for them.  At least they’ll be healthy addicts.

Now, it might be that a non-smoker on that basis sees an advert featuring e-cigs in a glamourous setting, and thinks that it looks like good clean fun – which, ex hypothesi, it is; is inclined to try vaping, likes it, and becomes hooked.  Is this a concern, sufficient to mean that we ought to worry about the e-Marlboro Man just as much as we did about the original when we consigned him to the advertising ash-tray?

Well, the original ban on advertising was linked to the physical harm of smoking; but if that’s all-but-eliminated, that rationale seems to have gone.  What’s left is, I suppose, a concern about psychological harm – of harm to self-control.  Maybe that’d provide a rationale for restricting advertising.

Maybe.  Probably not, though.

One of the things we have to ask ourselves is whether addiction harms people’s self-control.  In a way, it obviously does: that’s implicit in the idea of addiction.  Does it harm it in any other way?  Well, it might.  I’m reminded here of a scene in Breaking Bad, in which Jesse needs to gain access to a meth-addict’s house: he starts digging a hole in the front yard, and the addict not only comes out to see what’s going on, but takes over the job with such zeal that he doesn’t notice Jesse going inside – Jesse knows that that kind of thing is just what meth-heads do.  It seems reasonable to suppose that the addict here has been harmed, psychologically, by his condition.  His powers of cognition and self-control have been damaged, and it’s perfectly reasonable to cast that as a harm.

But nicotine is nothing like that.  Being a nicotine addict might incline you to go to the corner-shop at most, and even then you might decide against it if it’s really cold and rainy; it doesn’t make anyone crazy.  Whatever harm it might do to one’s self-control is pretty trivial.  (And, of course, the problem with crystal meth has to do with much more than the fact that it’s addictive.  It is harmful, directly and indirectly.)

To cut a long story short, it’s not clear that e-cigs really do enough harm to warrant worrying too much about them.  That point stands even if people who were not smokers become users and addicts.

If you’re a consequentialist, the argument probably stops there.

If you’re not, it needn’t.  In particular, I got wondering about what an Aristotelian ought to say about vaping.  Here’s the basic idea: nicotine is addictive.  Addiction implies dependence of some sort.  As such, it seems that there could be an argument along the lines that it is worse to be an addict than not to be, even if there are no consequences of that addiction.  It doesn’t seem implausible to me to suppose that addiction may be antagonistic to the good life merely by dint of being an addiction, because it gives you an extra “burden” – a need that has to be satisfied but that doesn’t pay its way.  (Food is a need that has to be satisfied, but you can’t live a good life without it.  Nicotine… not so much.)  The upshot is that someone concerned for his own flourishing might have a reason to avoid addiction, which means a reason to avoid addictive substances in most cases.  And since, for Aristotle, virtue and vice are linked with promoting or inhibiting flourishing – well, exposing yourself to addiction might actually be vicious.

You know you shouldn’t do it; you see no reason why…

… and you might see a reason why not.

We might also be concerned about the propriety of trying to sell an addictive substance.  That might turn out to be infra dig, too.  Advertising stuff is an attempt to make people buy or do it.  If the thing being advertised is linked with vice, then advertising it might also be vicious.

None of which tells us the first thing about whether we should regulate advertising by legal means – it’s a very naive view of ethics and law that says that everything morally iffy ought to be legally regulated.  An argument about regulation would need to be supplemented by an argument that laws ought to promote virtue or flourishing.  Maybe they should – Aristotle thinks so – but that’s an argument for another day.

But here’s the kicker: what I’ve just said could probably be said just as easily about caffeine.  A couple of years ago, without access to caffeine for a couple of days, I felt dreadful.  My name is Iain, and I think I’m an addict – or, at least, was: I’ve made a point of reducing my intake since then.  OK: there’ll never be anything remotely glamourous about tea – but all the same…  It’s strange to think that advertising the stuff might be morally interesting.  And let’s not even think about booze.

  • Great article! Love it!

  • Roger Hall

    Excellent! I do have a conflict of interest here as I’m a vaper with 35 years of smoking tobacco and I wasn’t even looking to give up, but I was given an ecig over 2 years ago and I haven’t touched a tobacco cigarette since, but therein lies the fundamental problem. Ecigs can’t be advertised as either a tobacco cessation product or can claim to have any health benefits. I can certainly testify that they are both. So without these benefits of ecigs able to be marketed to smokers, what alternatives do the ecig industry have? Also the fact that nicotine is addictive by itself has never been proven. This very long but highly informative study explains more about the facts regarding nicotine http://www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/8/1/12 and if nicotine isn’t as addictive as has always been assumed, then the whole ecig subject really needs evaluating, after all It’s long been accepted that it’s the combustion of tobacco that causes the harm from smoking, not the nicotine.