Wednesday 26 February 2014

Martin McKee's sudden interest in e-cigarettes

Martin McKee: A picture of health

The characteristically ill informed opinions of Martin McKee about e-cigarettes in the Guardian have attracted the attention of redheadfullofsteam and Dick Puddlecote. McKee seems to think that e-cigarette advertising is somehow designed to make people want to smoke combustible cigarettes. Insofar as he has evidence for this belief, it is that the company that makes the Vype e-cigarette is owned by BAT. This odd theory doesn't explain why independent e-cigarette companies such as E-Lites and NJOY also advertise, nor is it at all obvious how an advertisement for a disruptive product can help the incumbent.

Never mind. There's no point trying to find logic where it doesn't exist. The part of the article that I found interesting was this...

"My view at the moment is that these are things that have been around since the 1960s and people had not paid attention to them. Then suddenly the tobacco industry got interested," he said.

Well, the basic idea for the e-cigarette has been around for decades, and the tobacco industry has spent billions trying to develop alternatives to combustible cigarettes over the years. As I recounted in Free Market Solutions in Health: The Case of Nicotine, none of these innovations had the X factor of consumer appeal. It has only been in this millennium that e-cigarettes have become viable, mass market alternatives to smoking—and they are still improving.

But who is that "suddenly got interested" in e-cigarettes and why? Looking back in the archive of this blog, I see that one of the first posts from September 2009 was about e-cigarettes (in it, I asked the perennial question: "will pressure from American [anti-smoking] fundamentalists and Big Pharma prevail?") I wrote my first Spiked article about them the following year. Plenty of people have been writing articles and blog posts about e-cigarettes from the middle of the last decade.

What has 'public health professional' Martin McKee's contribution to the e-cigarette debate been prior to him declaring himself an expert on the subject five months ago? Well, he briefly mentioned them in a Lancet article in October 2012 when trying to shore up support for the Tobacco Products Directive. Apart from that, nothing. No mention of them on the blog he writes for and no mention of them on his personal blog.

Actually, there is one exception. In 2008, he made a brief mention of e-cigarettes on his blog, but completely misread the signals...

The industry needs to find ways of ensuring that people remain addicted. It is doing this in several ways. First, it is campaigning to legalise sales of snus, a form of oral tobacco, across Europe. It is currently sold only in Sweden and Norway. As we show in a recent paper, the industry’s claims for its effectiveness as an aid to quitting are without foundation [!?!?!?!?!?! - CJS]. Second, it is producing mini-cigarettes, so that smokers can pop out for a few minutes and get a quick nicotine fix without having to smoke a whole cigarette. At the same time, other companies are producing electronic devices that extract the nicotine from tobacco without producing smoke (something the tobacco industry is less keen on because it clearly highlights the role of nicotine as an addictive drug).

Six years on and 'mini-cigarettes' are nowhere to be seen and Mystic Martin is complaining that the tobacco industry is rather too "keen" on producing e-cigarettes. And this guy is an expert, apparently.

It was only in September last year that McKee decided to do "some homework" on e-cigarettes (his words). A sketchy BMJ opinion piece and a notoriously ignorant blog post were the fruits of his labour. This, it seems, was sufficient for him to become the go-to man whenever a journalist wants someone to talk about e-cigarettes.

I appreciate that the media often want to get extreme views in a debate and that McKee's rectally sourced opinions are not unrepresentative of the anti-smoking lobby's lunatic fringe/heartland. Nevertheless, it is rich of McKee to accuse people of becoming suddenly and suspiciously interested in e-cigarettes when he ignored them until the eleventh hour himself. Moreover, McKee's sudden interest in a major public health debate seems to have been inspired solely by the tobacco industry's recent entry into the e-cig market. Contrary to his comment in the Guardian, many "people" have been "paying attention" to e-cigarettes for a number of years. He hasn't. Until now. All of which supports the view that McKee is much less interested in 'public health' than he is about fighting a private war against industry.


Ben said...

McKee must have recognized that there is not much to gain anymore in tobacco control activities, so he is switching to e-cigarettes to make sure his trough will not go empty.

Lionel Harrington said...

If we ask a smoker about whether he want to quit this habit most them answer yes for this question and the reason is health consciousness or to reduce the expense so e-cigarette is providing a better option to overcome this situation i think that is the only reason the manufacturer are getting benefits and they are promoting it.

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