I received my first threat a few months ago. As a journalist, I’d received some very odd letters before, my personal favourite being an angry letter from the Florida Department of Citrus complaining about my opinion of grapefruits. An actual threat, though, was something new.
The reason? I said a Big Tobacco company had just bought an e-cigarette manufacturer.
This, of course, was true. But the ‘vaper’ community – people who use e-cigarettes – latched on to my comment. They took umbrage that I advised people not to be fooled into thinking Big Tobacco and e-cigarettes are entirely separate entities. While out running, I found my Twitter stream bombarded by comments filled with unrestrained scorn.
Idiot. Fool. Evil.
I’d seen these before. In my previous job I worked for the British Medical Association, and I’d seen the bile sent its way on a near-daily basis. It had been far worse: staff were labelled murderers simply for working on behalf of doctors, an imagined enemy who called for greater e-cigarette regulation.
I started blocking the users who sent the worst messages. I made the mistake of mentioning I was doing this, and that just attracted more abuse. Why was I ignoring people, the tweets demanded? I kept blocking; “because I don’t talk to people who hurl abuse at me” was only going to enflame things further.
Then the message came. It said something to the effect of “you won’t block what you can’t see coming”. Was it a threat? That’s how I interpreted it. Running through the deserted streets that night, it certainly felt like one. It was very, very creepy.
This incident makes talking about e-cigarettes without emotion very difficult. I try to look at the evidence. My stance isn’t even hardline: I just think that if something is going to be used as a medical device, it needs the same regulation and evidence base as a medicine. The cult of vaping has made rational detachment virtually impossible. A particularly militant wing is destroying its own argument with hate-fuelled rants.
And vaping is a cult, now, for a small number of its advocates. In this cult there is only one truth, and anyone who dares to question it deserves nothing less than savage scorn.
I have a general rule. If you invent a name for your opposition, you’re probably on the wrong side. Homeopaths call real medicine ‘allopathy’ in an attempt to discredit it. Vapers (that’s the name they chose) call anyone who disagrees with them ‘ANTZ’ – anti-nicotine and tobacco zealots. It’s a similar brand as allopathy: a snearing, derisive and dismissive insult.
This undermines any point vaping proponents try to make. Rational arguments about a growing, uncertain evidence base are not welcome here. It is a land of emotions, where heart rules head and reactions are polarised. It’s a land that pushes the debate into the worst possible place: a space with opposing sides trying to score points or count coup.
So what would be my advice to vapers?
Don’t get angry, get kind. It’s understandable to want to defend something you use, particularly if it’s better than something you were doing before. Understand that both ‘sides’ as you perceive them have points, and that an opinion counts for less than a fact. Appreciate that facts in isolation are not as valuable as an entire picture of evidence, and that this picture is still being developed. Most important of all, realise that hurling threats and insults or accusing people of being involved in grand, sinister conspiracies does not make your voice heard.
It just makes people stop listening.