Comment A few years ago, I interviewed Dr Craig Venter, the man who decoded the human genome, about his plan to save the planet. Venter’s goal was to create a drop-in substitute for hydrocarbon fuels, using genetically modified algae.
His algae facilities would be located beside high CO2 sources, and churn out synthetic oil. This could then be turned into aviation fuel, or petrol.
It was the first low carbon project Exxon had ever invested in. The beauty of Venter’s scheme was that much of the world’s transport infrastructure could carry on unmodified, with enormous savings on carbon dioxide emissions.*
No more oil wars, either, because we would no longer need oil.
The really interesting part came when I called up Friends of the Earth for a comment.
“Good news!” I told them. “We’ve saved the planet and everyone can carry on flying and driving cars. Isn’t that fantastic?”
“Yes, er… No. Er… wait a minute,” came back the reply.
It was apparent that climate change campaigners were in a quandary. Was their real goal saving the planet? Or did they just hate people deriving pleasure and utility from the use of cars and cheap air travel? If their goal was the latter, then why not just say so? They didn’t need to enlist Gaia for moral authority - they could simply change their name to "Enemies of Mobility", "Stay Home", or the "The New Static Movement". Something which more accurately expressed their mission.
The same dilemma is facing Public Health campaigners today. Tobacco giant Philip Morris said today it can envisage ceasing the production of cigarettes. This is a momentous claim: cigarettes (and rolling papers and various cig accoutrement) are all Philip Morris does today. It’s like Rolls Royce saying it’s going to stop making engines, or Stephen Fry saying he won’t do any more voiceovers.
The reason is its new nicotine product called iQOS, which following trials in test markets Japan and Italy, is going global. A Soho store selling the product opened this week.
PMI has identified that it’s a drug company, one selling drugs via a hugely unsafe delivery system. It’s going to continue selling the drug, but just using a much safer system. PMI spent $3bn developing the vaping technology.
The tobacco giant doesn’t pretend it’s “safe” – just a lot more healthy than smoking. That’s because the genuinely injurious thing of smoking isn’t the nicotine, which has some health benefits (though obviously not if it's delivered through a cigarette), but the delivery system: combusting tobacco. PMI claims that it’s 95 per cent safer, and that iQOS has a 70 per cent quit rate, higher than vaping products on the market today.**
You’d think this would be welcomed by anti-smoking campaigners. But you’d be wrong.
Yet “health” campaigners today find themselves exactly where Friends of the Earth did a few years ago. Their bluff has been called.
“If I was heading up an anti-smoking charity,” writes Dave Dorn, “I'd be happy as a pig in shit at that news. I'd be grabbing all my minions and dispatching them to the Dept. of Health and various other top level bodies and doing my level best to, as Jean-Luc Picard would say, ‘make it so’”.
But public health does not appear to be a priority for the many in Public Health, just as saving the planet wasn’t really the priority for people who said they wanted to Save The Planet. The WHO wants a global ban on smoking substitutes like e-cigarettes. Wales banned vaping on the grounds of "normalisation": a non-smoker watching someone put a cumbersome contraption to their mouths, and exhale perfumed steam would think: “That’s so cool. Now I must start smoking.” Vaping isn’t cool, and people who already think smoking is cool tend to go straight for the cigarettes.
Perhaps it's dawned on the more fanatical Public Health campaigners that the end is in sight, and a new cause is needed. The death of cigarettes will happen not because of Public Health, but because a superior technology came along to replace them. And you can bet ex-smokers who quit in spite of them won’t thank be thanking Public Health for prolonging the life of the combustible cigarette. ®
* The project ended when Synthetic Genomics failed to identify a suitable algae. Many other less ambitious biofuel projects continue.
** I'm doubtful, since addicts have a different psychology to consumers of conventional consumer goods. It isn’t clear that packaging and simplifying a complex product is the clincher here, as it is with almost every other technology product. But more market choice is good, so we’ll see Philip Morris’ claims put to the test.