Having tried nicotine gum, patches, an inhalator, hypnotherapy (twice) and simply cutting down a bit, Louisa Saunders tried e-cigarettes
Recounting his decades-long tussle with fags, the “anti-smoking guru” revealed that he chugged through up to 100 a day – and never fewer than 60 – in the face of a hacking cough and a relentless, terrifying fixation with the Grim Reaper. Carr, who died in 2006 but remains famed for his Easyway anti-addiction programme, had been a man possessed. Once, he burnt the back of his hand by trying to put a cigarette in his mouth when another one was already there.
Like many smokers, I have read his account a few times. I can’t be the only one to have thought: “You’re not the worst nicotine addict – because you managed to stop. The worst is surely me.” And lit another fag.
Smokers love a good quitting story. It gives us a frisson of hope. But all the time we’re looking for the “catch” – the quitter was only a “social smoker”; they effortlessly laid off smoking whenever they stayed with their parents; they had a nasty cold and realised afterwards that they had just stopped. Amateurs. Carr’s book didn’t stop me smoking.
My failed attempts
I drank Carr’s kool-aid about 15 years ago before a holiday in the United States and managed, as instructed, to nurture a feeling of excitement about freeing myself from cigarettes. But within days of abstaining I was so poleaxed by depression that I could barely get out of bed, and soon lit up, thinking perhaps nicotine was, for me, a form of self-medication. (I would still recommend this book, and I have met many former smokers for whom it “worked”.)
I smoked 15 cigarettes a day, not 100, but I believe that it is not the numbers but the level of dedication that defines a smoking habit. I tried to brazen it out, but only I knew the depth of my addiction and I carried a deep sense of shame.
I was drawn to cigarettes in my teens and was always a self-hating smoker – but at the same time, smoking was a kind of tortured passion, like a toxic affair with a horribly unsuitable lover. I had almost come to accept that I would die young. At times, it almost seemed worth it.
As well as Carr’s book, I tried nicotine gum, patches and an inhalator, hypnotherapy (twice) and cutting down to just a few cigarettes a day. Nothing worked for more than a few months. But today, I have not smoked a cigarette for a year and I couldn’t be more relaxed about it.
The really strange part is that this time I was not actively trying to give up, just hoping to mitigate my smoking habit a bit.
Vaping deaths: what we know about the lung illness scientists think is caused by e-cigarettes
Finally, a solution that works for me?
I decided to dip a toe into the unpromising waters of e-cigarettes. I had tried them before, picking up a “cigalike” from the chemist, and found them both foul-tasting and weak. (I now know where I was going wrong, of which more later.) But this time my interest had been piqued on learning that my elder daughter’s girlfriend had recently made a complete switch without fuss, and she was no amateur – nothing could tear this girl from her 40 a day.
I decided to do proper research this time. In practice, this meant scrolling through tiresome blogs on commercial e-cigarette sites, all clogged with mystifying jargon. And it meant long – hours long! – conversations with men in vape shops with heavy-metal T-shirts and disfiguring earlobe furniture. (I have yet to see a woman behind a vape-shop counter, or to find a crystal-clear, non-commercial and unbiased guide for learner vapers.)
That was the difficult part. The rest was a breeze. Within a couple of days I was down to one cigarette a day. Within a week, I had given up analogue cigarettes (as vapers call them) completely. I just didn’t feel the need.
The beauty of it, to a conflicted addict like me, was that any relapses – smoking a real cigarette in a weak moment – would not spell the end of the project. You could just hop right back on the wagon. Somehow, the knowledge that I could smoke if I wanted made abstaining easy. But there were no lapses. A year later, I still possess the crumpled remains of my last packet of fags.
The scientific view
The world’s public health experts are divided on the rights and wrongs of vaping.
In Australia, it is all but illegal. In the UK, Ash and Public Health England actively encourage smokers to switch, and PHE says vaping is 95 per cent safer than smoking. The US often appears to be torn between an instinctive puritanism and a worship of the free market. But one thing experts all agree on is that vaping is not as harmful as smoking.
Despite this, academic surveys show that the percentage of people who think e-cigarettes are just as harmful is rising and is currently on 43 per cent. And that was before the mysterious outbreak of a vaping-related lung disease in the US last year, which killed 47 people and now appears to have been linked to an unregulated product using THC, the primary psychoactive component of cannabis.
The discrepancy may be partly down to a contrariness built into the news cycle, which naturally favours scare stories. Single studies, however questionable their findings, often get the “man bites dog” treatment, while huge reviews of the science, which can tell us a lot more, don’t make for very interesting headlines.
Such reviews generally show that, as Public Health England puts it: “While vaping may not be 100 per cent safe, most of the chemicals causing smoking-related disease are absent and the chemicals which are present pose limited danger.”
Vaping, being new, is under-researched so far. Nicotine, though, is not, and while it is known to be fiendishly addictive it is not classified as a carcinogen, despite what many people believe.
Vaping liquids and equipment in EU countries are among the most highly regulated in the world. As with all health matters, stay abreast of trusted information sources to help keep the scare stories in proportion.
Are e-cigarettes attracting new smokers?
One day perhaps I will take the next step and give up vaping, but I’m in no hurry. I already feel richer, freer and a bit less despised than when I was a smoker. Though only a bit. There is a certain moral panic around vaping – as though people fear we’re “getting away with it”.
In the US, there is concern that sleek, slim, new vapes such as Juul are luring the young into vaping. The figures don’t seem to bear this out in the UK, though. A report by Public Health England last year found that while 1.7 per cent of people aged 11 to 18 said they were vaping every week, just 0.2 per cent of the same age group were doing it weekly having never smoked. Logically, it seems likely that e-cigarettes are attracting teenagers who would otherwise be smoking cigarettes.
My younger daughter, a student, began vaping recently because she had casually started smoking, against her better judgement, while hanging out with friends – apparently, the “interesting” people at any event are still to be found in a huddle outside it. Despite years of anti-smoking campaigns, smoking is still cool in her world, “Juuling” only a little less so.
The official advice remains, however, that smokers should try e-cigarettes to help quit.
Allen Carr didn’t hold with nicotine replacements, but I suspect that in a different time (he stopped smoking in 1983), he would have been a vaper too, and his book might never have been written.
Believe me, if it works for me, it can work for anyone. But you need to be armed with the info.
The basics on vaping to help you find the best aid for quitting cigarettes:
First, choose your device. Mine is known as a “mod” – I still have no idea what that means, but it’s about as fat as a super-plus tampon and only needs charging once a day, which is the important thing. I started with an Aspire Pockex and it’s fine, though I have little to compare it with. It’s a mainstream brand and hence easy to buy parts for.
“Pod” systems such as Juul and Blu work out more expensive but are wonderfully convenient. You don’t refill them with liquid as you do a mod but just buy a pack of refills (available in supermarkets) and click them in. They’re smaller and more discreet but may need charging more often. A similar item but with refillable pods works out cheaper.
Those tanks that produce massive vapour clouds are more for hobbyists in my view, but if you want to know about them, users will be only too happy to talk (and talk) about them.
Experiment to see what feels right for you. All of this is much cheaper than buying cigarettes, so you can afford to.
The strength you choose will depend on how many cigarettes you smoke and other factors, such as when and how you plan to vape. They generally range from 6mg per ml (recommended for smokers of five or fewer per day) to 18mg for those on 20 or more.
I wanted to be able to nip out for a quick vape while working in an office, so chose a higher strength than recommended (18mg) that would deliver fast in a short time. Also, my aim was to replace cigarettes, not to win a medal for abstemiousness, and I thought a high strength would up my chances. But if you plan to puff all day, you may want to start low.
In the US, the maximum legal strength is 50mg/ml. So when I heard, years ago, that the EU had restricted e-liquids to 20mg, I thought they would be too weak and deter hardened smokers from switching. Happily, I was wrong.
Nic salts are a different formulation from most e-liquids. They are thought to deliver more nicotine, faster, with less harshness. If you’re worried about vaping attracting young people, that’s a bad thing. If you’re worried about getting yourself off cigarettes, it’s a good thing.They are contained in pod systems such as Juul and can be bought as e-liquid, too.
How to vape
E-cigarettes contain a wick that draws in liquid. When you puff (or press a button), a coil heats liquid that is then turned to vapour. A new wick needs 10 to 30 minutes to sit and absorb liquid before you start vaping – otherwise there will be a burnt flavour that will put your off vaping for life. Why does no one tell you this?
Vaping delivers nicotine to your body in a slightly different way to smoking. Smoke particles are smaller and carry nicotine deep into the lungs. With vapour, nicotine absorption is mostly through the mucous membranes in your mouth and throat. The nicotine gets there more slowly, but still pretty fast. Puffs will generally need to be longer but less deep. Your lungs might feel a bit dry before you get used to this. If you’re an addict your body will soon learn.
Many places have banned vaping, just as they have banned smoking. But if you’re craving a quick puff in a restaurant loo or at a crowed gig, it’s absolutely possible to get away with it, and it’s a victimless crime in my opinion. I will say no more.