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Vape and value judgments

Photograph: Wikipedia

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It wouldn’t hurt to be reminded that there are healthier ways to be happy, says Nicholas Chan.

The only serious dating advice I received from my parents, who largely practise a policy of non-interference, is that they would judge my partner if she was a smoker.

Of course, later we found out there were many more things they would judge – like most parents do – but it is safe to say that smoking is more or less a stigma in my household. And this value judgment did get passed down to me.

For a long phase of my life, I didn’t hold the habit in high regard. I didn’t get why people still smoked when there was mounting evidence of associated health hazards.

But now, still a non-smoker, I can empathise with their anguish with regard to the recent 40% cigarette price hike, and also some very strong reactions towards the vape industry.

So what changed me? It was this comment made by a professor when the class was discussing the merits and demerits of legalising weed (the street name of marijuana) in the United Kingdom. He said if alcohol was subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as marijuana, it would have been banned.

The truth is, alcohol has killed more people in the UK than marijuana, either directly through alcohol-related pathologies such as liver cirrhosis and cardiovascular diseases, or indirectly through cases of driving under the influence (DUI) and the many bar fights initiated by drunk, angry men.

In fact, alcohol-related incidents were so common that we forensic science students were all well-trained to handle such cases, more so than any other substances.

The health costs associated with alcohol far outweighed those related to marijuana. Marijuana, on the other hand, actually has positive health effects because of its medicinal properties.

It would appear that the only reason alcohol is not banned in the UK is because it is integral to mainstream culture. The United States, however, did succeed in banning alcohol during a period in the 1920s popularly known as The Prohibition, although its degree of success is still a matter of debate today.

So if alcohol (which I like, although only as a social drinker) escapes judgment only through fortuity, who are we to judge other consumption habits and under whose benchmarks? This rattled my thinking and my scepticism towards value judgments grew.

So did my annoyance towards them, which is exactly what happened during the government-building dress code episode. In essence, the matter is just one person’s view of normality against another’s.

As a caffeine addict, I count myself lucky because my substance addiction does not invite value judgment, unlike that of a smoker or vaper, even though the nature of our addictions might be the same.

When I need my kick, I will drink any kind of caffeinated beverage – definitely not your hipster coffee connoisseur.

As a fully functional human being, much like most smokers, I don’t think I am any less flawed, if flawlessness is dictated by a lack of addiction, that is.

No doubt there are valid health concerns. Smoking is known to cause cancer, but so does processed meat. While not as potent, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently identified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (the same class as tobacco smoke), which means there are firm links to cancer.

That said, it is unlikely that sausages and bacon will be banned. To be honest, trying to do so might spark the greatest rebellion humankind has ever seen.

To clarify, I am not advocating the intake (or excessive intake) of any of these scientifically proven harmful substances. I do support the regulation of vaping because the sale of nicotine is restricted under the Poisons Act. It is also important to make sure the device and its contents are safe as there have been reports of it exploding.

Flying blind is definitely not an option – vape needs to be at least as well understood as alcohol and cigarettes. However, to base decisions on value judgments is equally harmful.

Increasing evidence has shown that employing hardline measures for combating drug problems is counter-productive. Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs resulted in so much violence that more than 60,000 people were killed during his six years of administration. Still, the drug and cartel problem in Mexico has not been resolved.

Soft measures, including legalisation, have on the contrary achieved many positive outcomes. Taxing the sales of cannabis has given extra revenue to government, which would otherwise be lost to the criminal economy, and it gives less incentive for people to patronise gang-related dealers.

In the long run, regulation can also safeguard the source of the substance so that its revenue won’t be channelled towards funding criminal enterprises, civil wars or terrorist groups.

And not all soft measures have to be legalisation. For example, shooting galleries for heroin, which were implemented in seven European countries as in Australia and Canada, were shown to have reduced health hazards associated with dirty syringes, unsafe administration and nasty adulterants. Overdose cases have fallen by up to 80% in Sydney.

In Switzerland, it pushes dealers out of business and the number of addicts has in fact fallen in Zurich. No galleries were shown to have encouraged more people to take up the habit.

It might run afoul of our first instincts, but evidence does suggest policies based on value judgments are not effective in tackling substance addiction problems.

Soft measures such as education programmes, smoke-free zones and increased taxes, as opposed to as outright banning, have demonstrated this effectiveness.

Smoking rates in the US, the UK and other advanced economies have plummeted to all-time low levels. In fact, even soda consumption in the US – especially among the youth – fell by 25% over the last 20 years.

This shows that a society’s receptivity towards hazardous substances can be shaped by policy as long as they are based on informed, sustained and patient decisions.

Knee-jerk reactions based on value judgements will not help because they will ferment the creation of a counter-culture which makes consumption even sexier and accrues benefits for illegal enterprises if legal access is snuffed out.

I for one don’t like to be judged for taking my bacon, more so if I am stopped from taking it (halal trolleys definitely won’t stop me). But it wouldn’t hurt to be reminded that there are healthier ways to be happy, I hope.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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