In my last article I wrote about “virtue signalling” – the tendency of some people to adopt modes of thought or action as a means of signalling to others how virtuous they are – regardless of whether their actions have any operative significance. The tendency to say “me too” in respect of utterly vacuous policies like sugar taxes, minimum alcohol pricing, plain packaging of cigarettes and health warnings on bottles of booze, is a way of signalling which side of the moral divide you’re on in respect of a range of apparently disparate issues which are in fact connected, in that they represent a kind of new puritanism.
Almost without exception virtue signalling is about gesture politics. It is an easy way of appearing to do something that doesn’t require too much effort. It almost always involves imposing bans, taxes or regulations. And more often than not it signifies a moral disapproval that is rooted in a kind of crude anti-capitalism. Not all of this meddling is restricted to what we eat, drink or smoke. But a lot of it is.
Which brings me to “vaping”. I’m not a smoker and never have been. I spent 23 years running licensed premises in which people were allowed to smoke tobacco and I just took it for granted. When the smoking ban was first mooted I felt then as I feel now: that it should be up to operators to decide whether to allow it or not; or whether to have a smoking room; in essence, give people a choice. But it was not to be. I don’t intend to rehearse the whole debate about smoking and second-hand smoke, but I do think that the advent of vaping has created a dilemma for the virtue signallers who walk amongst us, and the smoking debate has been resurrected in a different form.
The Welsh government is proposing to ban vaping in enclosed public spaces – to treat vapers like smokers. The ban is supposed to kick-in sometime in 2017. But health minister Mark Drakeford has recently told the Welsh Assembly’s health and social care committee that vaping would be allowed in wet-led pubs that don’t serve food, and where unaccompanied children are banned. But it appears uncertain exactly what this means. As Assembly member Darren Millar put it: “Many wet-led pubs serve pickled eggs, pork scratching and packets of crisps on the bar. Are these pubs included in the ban or not?”
What is it that gets into people and makes them feel it is necessary to get into the granular detail, the tick-and-tock of other peoples’ lives in this way? There is a division of opinion amongst the public health community with the British Medical Association, Public Health Wales and the Centre for Tobacco Control Research all favouring a ban (and not just in Wales). But Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation Wales and Action on Smoking and Health are all opposed. The reason for this division is that while most people see vaping as a means by which people can enjoy the recreational use of nicotine without inhaling the carcinogens in tobacco, others say it is a gateway to smoking, not a way of kicking the habit. Overwhelmingly the research demonstrates that it is a way of giving up, not a way of starting.
But here’s where the health and moral aspects of this issue get intertwined. Nicotine is a drug; and it is seen as a drug of addiction. So should people be encouraged to use it at all? And insofar as vaping represents a private sector solution to a public health problem - that is something that makes some in the public health racket feel very nervous indeed. So better to signal that vaping is just a less-bad way of smoking by treating vapours as smokers, but maybe with a few concessions.
What makes this kind of restriction even more of a piece of virtue signalling nonsense is that in the vast majority of pubs and bars vapours go outside with smokers in any event. Some operators insist on that as a matter of policy, and I understand why. It is difficult to explain to your customers why one way of enjoying nicotine is permitted inside, but the other requires you to leave the building. It creates control dilemmas for operators and their staff. So, why not do with vaping what we should have done with smoking – leave it to the operator to decide what their policy is in relation to vaping, and leave it to customers to decide where they want to drink.