Smoking special: Are e-cigs a viable alternative or just a fashion symbol?

Stock image of a person using an e-cig
Stock image of a person using an e-cig

The sharp fall in the number of smokers on the Fylde coast has given rise to alternatives to traditional cigarettes.

In a series of special reports, The Gazette has highlighted the impact the smoking ban has had since it was introduced 10 years ago this month.

While the number of people smoking in Blackpool has dwindled in recent years – 22.5 per cent of the population smoked in 2016 –there is evidence of a sharp rise in the use of e-cigarettes, or ‘vaping’.

The battery-powered devices have proved controversial and public opinion remains split over whether they are a healthier than cigarettes, despite Public Health England’s ‘estimate’ that they are ‘around 95 per cent less harmful than smoking’.

E-cigarettes are filled with a liquid that contains nicotine, flavouring, and other chemicals. That liquid is heated and converted in a vapour that is then inhaled.

It is thought some 2.9m people in Great Britain use the electronic cigarette substitutes, up from just 700,000 in 2012.

But vaping has not been enitrely incident free, with reports of some e-cigarettes exploding. One such case happened just yards away from a feeding baby in Blackpool and another was in a pupil’s pocket at Montgomery High School in Bispham.

And they have been banned from numerous venues and pubs – with almost 45 per cent of the population not realising e-cigarettes are much less harmful than traditional smoking, Public Health England said.

Author of the review, Professor Ann McNeill, added: “There is no evidence e-cigarettes are undermining England’s falling smoking rates.

“Instead the evidence consistently finds that e-cigarettes are another tool for stopping smoking and in my view smokers should try vaping and vapers should stop smoking entirely.”

There have been claims previously that e-cigarettes, in particular the flavours, are attractive to children and provide them with a stepping stone to traditional smoking.

Fraser Cropper, managing director of Lancashire firm Totally Wicked, previously backed a new law banning the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s, and said: “99 per cent and above of our customers are smokers or ex-smokers.

“There have been a number of studies that refute the gateway theory.”

Mr Cropper blamed ‘laziness in leadership, particularly in big organisations, who use false and lame and limited narrative’ to take an anti-vaping stance by not allowing e-cigarettes to be used indoors.

Pub giant JD Wetherspoon is among the companies that have banned vaping in its bars.

In 2013, a spokesman said: “While we appreciate that electronic cigarettes are legal, the bottom line is that they generally emit a vapour that looks like smoke.

“Therefore, if a customer looks like they are smoking, barstaff have no other choice but to investigate.”

Arif Rajpura, director of Public Health in Blackpool, said: “I know one view is it’s less harmful and that’s why people have gone down the line of almost promoting them as a harm reduction opportunity.

“I can’t categorically say they are less harmful, because I don’t know what the long-term impact is.”

There are several different types of e-cigarettes, Mr Rajpura said, and he added: “I’m seeing a lot of young people using e-cigarettes in Blackpool that have not smoked.

“Is it recruiting another generation of smokers? Is it a stepping stone? We are not certain.”

Sam Stone, 36, knows of the impact of the smoking ban. She said it cost her dad Geoff Lambert his pub in Preston.

“Within five years he had no trade,” she said. “There was no-one coming in anymore and he end up retiring.”

Mr Lambert, who died in 2013 at 66, ran the Dog and Phesant, The Royal Lancaster, Preston Pool and Social Club, and perhaps most notable, The Castle in Good Street.

Despite the sadness, Sam said the ban has helped her own e-cigarette business, Thornton-based Drop Drop Vapour Ltd, become a success.

The firm both makes and sells its own liquids, and has shops in Nutter Road, Cleveleys, and Birley Street, Blackpool.

Sam said: “We go to the shops two to three times a week and there can be little old grannies who have decided to give up, and they come in for a starter kit, and we get the 18-25s who sit in the shop all day.

“It’s a big community; it’s a nice place to be.”

Daniel Hall is a manager at The Vapour Corner, which opened its first store five years ago and now has 11 dotted around the north west, including in Blackpool and Preston.

He said each customer is different, but said: “You do find some people who have packed up smoking and gone cold turkey, and they would have potentially gone back to cigarettes, but what they have chosen to do is choose a different route.”

One factor is cost, he added, though he said regulations prevent him talking about any health implications.

And he said the company has ‘always’ had an over-18 policy, though the law banning the sale to youngsters only came into place in October 2015.

He added: “We have an 18 policy and we have always had it, even though 12 months ago we could legally sell this product because there was no law at all.”

“We totally disagreed with it. We could have sold to a three-year-old.”

A number of shisha bars and cafes have opened in the past decade too, though more so towards Preston and other larger cities rather than on the Fylde coast.

Shisha involves smoking flavoured tobacco through a water pipe, though the practice is bound by the same Smoke Free law as cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Health bosses have been outspoken in their criticism of shisha, and the establishments they fear are flouting the smoking ban, and have warned of the health implications involved.

Eirian Molloy, environmental health manager at Preston City Council, said many people are not aware of the risks, including holidaymakers who may be tempted to try shisha on summer travels to the Middle East or north Africa.

Research shows an hour spent smoking a shisha pipe can be the equivalent of puffing on 100 to 200 cigarettes, with users subject to the same diseases faced by cigarette smokers.

Eirain said: “There is a misconception as it goes through water, anything harmful is filtered out. That’s not the case.

“Some people think because it’s fruit flavoured, it’s not harmful, but that’s not true either.

“Because it is a social activity, the length of time spent smoking is potentially longer than nipping out of the pub for a quick cigarette.”