A Message to Politicians and Public Health From A Former Smoker: Fuck Off

In the years since I quit smoking, I’ve heard more about my “nicotine use” than in all the years that I smoked. And I heard plenty from people before I quit, thank you. It’s unavoidable if you smoke. The harassment, the shaming and shunning, is unending. It’s so normalized that even the public are in it- friends and family who might otherwise be counted on to be supportive or at least normal regularly harangue and berate, oblivious to the impact that endless shaming and judgment can have on a person and their relationships. The more I talk to people, the clearer it is that they’ve no idea why people smoke or why they quit and they don’t particularly care to learn. Hating smokers is socially acceptable, expected even. It’s an activity we can all get in on, guilt-free, and now we’re extending it to people who enjoy nicotine in any form. I have one message for all of you, but particularly those working in government and public health: fuck right off

When I quit smoking, I thought I’d heard the last of the complaints. No more excuse to tell me that I smell, you patchouli-wearing clowns- finally! No telling me about your father-in-law or friend of a friend who quit smoking through sheer willpower. No more coughing from passers-by across the street. No more shooing me off to the smoker’s corner behind the building and beside the garbage bin, or asking me if I don’t care whether I die young. Peace at last! Little did I know…

The reason I was able to quit smoking was because I tried vaping. I only tried it out of curiosity, because it smelled good and my husband kept talking it up. His dad had quit smoking with vaping on the recommendation of his oncologist and he had taken up vaping as well, more recently. The two of them kicked sixty and thirty year smoking habits- overnight. “Good for you,” I offered- sincerely, “but leave me out of it.” 

It may surprise people who don’t smoke that not everyone wants to quit. I know it does. But I did not spend decades desperately wanting to quit smoking. I didn’t wake up every day thinking, “maybe today’s the day” and failing. I enjoyed smoking, most days. But like many people who smoke, I’ve answered, “You know it!” in response to “Are you going to quit that filthy habit?” on more than one occasion. I’m downplaying it- I’ve easily said it a thousand or more times, with equal sincerity- none. You’re like children with your constant nattering- of course I’m going to go along to get you off my back. That I didn’t mean it should have been obvious when I continued to smoke.

I have meant to quit smoking a few times, just like you’ve probably resolved to exercise more or to eat less junk food or to make better dating choices at some point in time. It comes and it goes. The longest stretch was cold turkey: nine months, many years ago. I didn’t much like it in the end. I returned to smoking and was happier for it. Shorter efforts were made with gum and with the patch. I quite enjoyed the patch at level one, the strongest nicotine, apart from the burning and the rashes. Burning skin aside, it was tidy and efficient in comparison to smoking. I hardly smoked at all while I was on it. It was leveling down in nicotine that didn’t work and looking back, I wish I had questioned why I should decrease my nicotine intake, given it wasn’t the thing causing the harm. But I followed directions and when it became clear that I could not comfortably level down on the recommended schedule, I stopped use (as directed) and returned to smoking full-time. Problem solved.

It would be years before I quit again and for good, thanks to vaping, and as mentioned- I didn’t mean to quit. The reason vaping worked for me, why it has stuck, is that I find it better than smoking. I enjoy it more. The multitude of flavours, the ability to control my nicotine intake, the ease and convenience, the price point… That’s what made me an accidental quitter. Not coercion or force or suffering- a better option. It’s also the reason I have no intention of quitting vaping. I vape instead of smoking. The alternative- just stop using nicotine altogether- is not on the table. That hangup is yours, and it’s damaged my life enough already. 

The obsession with nicotine is nothing more than a morality argument and a ridiculously flimsy one at that. All of the arguments against nicotine lead back to the harms of smoking- a very specific delivery method. But if we remove smoking from the equation, the effects of nicotine on the body are negligible, similar to caffeine. People report improved concentration and ability to focus, stress-relief, and enjoyment as some of the effects that they experience with nicotine. I’m one of them. And yes, I would say that I’m dependent on nicotine. I’m grumpy without it and I’m not at my best, performance-wise. I also find it much harder to manage my anxiety without it. That’s not really a sufficient reason to intervene in my life or to criminalize my choices. 

That’s precisely where things are headed in Canada though. The thing that I (and tens of thousands of Canadians) use instead of smoking is slowly being picked away at and rendered less effective and less appealing- by Health Canada. They say that in order to prevent future generations from smoking, they must disadvantage the safer option. A whole category of products was wiped out on January 1st, 2021 by HC decree. The allowable nicotine strength has been slashed by 70%, effective July 23. And now Health Canada proposes to eliminate flavours from vaping, leaving a narrow range of tobacco, mint, and menthol that can be produced from 40 allowable chemical compounds. So not even the best tobacco and mints because they contain compounds outside of the prescribed list. 

There will be no accidental quitters under this plan. The new regulations would leave nothing on the market that would have appealed to me as a smoker. Nothing that I would want to use now. But even that won’t satisfy the anti-nicotine crowd who are already calling for the government to eliminate all flavours from vaping products.

This obsession with nicotine is killing people who might otherwise access it in safer forms, to reduce their smoking or in lieu of smoking. We accept that safer nicotine is available in pharmaceutical options, sold as nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs). We understand this. But we’re stuck on this loop, that nicotine can only be used to quit smoking and for that purpose alone. Maybe NRTs would have a higher success rate if they had been designed and marketed as an alternative to smoking, instead of simply a smoking cessation product. They weren’t. They require intention. They enjoy about a 7% success rate. The same people who oppose vaping and would go so far as to ban it outright support NRTs that contain the exact same pharmaceutical grade nicotine. Why? Maybe because one involves the use of nicotine to achieve an end (quit smoking) and the other involves the continued enjoyment of nicotine and they simply can’t accept that.

The stigmatization of people who smoke has reached a level where they can’t shake it off even after quitting. There’s no credit for quitting smoking, or not starting, if you vape. If you continue to use nicotine. The goal post has moved. Health Canada and our Chief Medical Officers are already imagining a world without nicotine. Not good enough to quit, no more the days of “every cigarette not smoked is a victory.” Now you mustn’t enjoy nicotine in any form, nicotine-free is the way of the pure

It completely ignores the fact that people will use nicotine and if the most enjoyable, effective means of getting that is through smoking, they’ll smoke. Health Canada will have restricted their options. They’ll have removed anything that might supplant cigarettes on the free market. If we restrict the appeal and effectiveness of every new nicotine consumer product, as we are doing with vaping, no matter the relative safety- why would any new generation choose it over smoking

Vaping is often derided because it doesn’t fall into the category of traditional NRTs. The industry hasn’t applied for it’s products to be sold as smoking cessation products. It’s not a drawback that it’s not a smoking cessation product though, it’s an advantage. It means there’s an alternative to smoking. There’s something for the people to use instead of cigarettes and it’s remarkably safer. People should want that.

If the proposal to ban almost all of the flavours in vaping goes through, following on the heels of the nicotine restriction, people will go back to smoking. I won’t, not at this point. I’ve been off cigarettes for a lot of years now, it’s simply not as enjoyable. I will DIY what I can. What I can’t DIY, or don’t want to, I’ll source from the black market. My concern is for the people who will follow the law no matter the consequence. If they can’t legally access the products they use instead of smoking, and they’re not ready or anxious for a nicotine-free life despite people telling them that they should be, they’ll return to smoking. And I’m concerned for the scoff-laws like me who are more concerned with their quality of life than any Health Canada mandate and are criminalized for it. 

As someone who did smoke, I am beside myself with rage. I have been in this fight for over five years now. A fight that I never invited or expected. And what exactly have I been fighting for? To preserve access to the thing that got me off cigarettes, that’s replaced them completely for me. And who am I fighting? Two consecutive governments, Health Canada, an assortment of wealthy NGOs, and the media. I have read hundreds of scientific papers, written dozens of letters to Health Canada and elected representatives, answered polls, added my name to petitions, written articles… 

Most of us fighting on the side of vaping are just regular citizens. We are, or we were, the smokers that Health Canada keeps talking about. We’re your mum, your brother, your uncle or aunty. We’re your best friend, your grandpa, your coworker. We’re the person you’ve been on about to quit smoking and we’ve done it, many of us without any real effort or even intention. Isn’t that wonderful? And now we’re being criticized for how we quit, and for still liking nicotine. Of all things. It feels as though there’s no winning. 

Even people who went directly to vaping, bypassing cigarettes altogether, are under attack. Held up as a warning to scare people. But those people, particularly younger people, who chose to try vaping instead of smoking are a signal for hope, not harbingers of danger. They are the generation that could break the smoking cycle by choosing a safer delivery method. We could prevent them from doing that, but to what end? What message are we sending when choosing the safer option is demeaned and berated? What exactly do we intend to accomplish by rendering vapour products less appealing and effective?

I suppose in the “ideal world” that a relatively small group of affluent, powerful, and mostly white people imagine, we’ll all stop liking and using nicotine, in any form. Many of us will die in the intervening years but then new generations will be born who don’t like nicotine and won’t use it. And they won’t use other drugs to try to replicate the effects of nicotine, because. We’ll all simply come around to the view that nicotine is bad and avoid anything like it. Et voila- a nicotine-free world! This perfect world fantasy, in which we all fit the mold of what the upper classes think we should, does not (sorry to say, will not) exist. That they have to keep creating laws to impose their vision says it all.

Some of us are more grounded in reality. We’ve tried to offer our real-world experience to draw from, as it is increasingly clear that those proposing and crafting legislation have no idea what or who they are dealing with even as they talk of “helping”. Case in point: Their vision of a better, more perfect world will result in more smoking first. Health Canada explicitly acknowledges that in not one but two of its proposals. (See excerpts below.) It is truly an upside-down world when those in public health put forward a proposal that they predict will increase smoking rates, in a document that dares to mention the goal of decreasing smoking, and the public and media are largely on-board or apathetic.

To those in government or public health: stop using us as cover for the awful things you’re doing. Stop pretending to the public that you only want to “help” us or future generations like us. You don’t even want to talk to us. You certainly aren’t listening. You dismiss our letter-writing, our phone calls, our petitions, our protests, our campaigns. You ask that anyone who was committed enough to vaping to open a business to identify themselves ahead of offering feedback, so that you can discredit their testimony. You’ve stated outright that you know and don’t care that more of us will smoke and stay smoking if you proceed with your plans. You’ve asked us what we like about vaping and then proceeded to slash away at those attributes. If your plans are enacted, you’ll have successfully criminalized the most effective substitute for smoking that Canada has seen. Keep our names out of your mouths when you defend your position. You are not on our side.

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