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Electronic Cigarettes: Socially Acceptable, or Totally Taboo?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the smokers back in the pub again?
They’re a contentious bunch, those smokers. Single-handedly, they’re the biggest problem demographic for publicans, seeing as they were the mainstay behind so many of England’s drinking hostelries, yet equally the biggest scourge for non-smokers looking for an idyllic place to dine.
And let’s not forget that – putting supermarket prices, alcohol tax or an impending financial meltdown so severe that it might put the Vatican into receivership aside – the smoking ban is undoubtedly the single biggest culprit behind the demise of so many of Britain’s pubs.
Despite assurances from the government and several anti-smoking lobbies that once the ban was in place great swathes of non-smokers would inundate our pubs, we all knew in our heart-of-hearts that it wasn’t really going to happen. At the end of the day, non-smokers who wanted to use the pub used it regardless of whether people smoked or not; they knew what it was going to be like when they opened the front door, and went there anyway. Non-smokers who didn’t want to use the pub didn’t use it because they preferred a bottle of red plonk curled up on the sofa with the cat purring at their feet while they watched Z-List Celebrity Deathmatch on Saturday night TV.
Because of this, smoke-free pubs are still not enough to lure them away from Bruce Forsyth or Ant & Dec and therefore it’s no surprise that when it’s cold, wet and dark these days a lot of pubs are quiet, empty buildings desperately waiting for customers.
Come the warm weather and sunshine, beer gardens and smoking shelters fill up with – you guessed it – smokers who come back to the pub but, given the fact that Britain has a naturally wet and windy climate, such days don’t happen often.
Pubs, therefore, have had to change their business models – mainly towards serving more food. For some this has worked, for others it hasn’t. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way for the diner and the smoker to coexist in peaceful harmony?
It’s a sort of Nirvana, I understand, but if smokers could be in one bar and diners in another, Britain’s pubs would be lively, profitable establishments once again. Maybe, though, there’s a twenty-first century solution to the problem.
A customer who once frequented my pub daily but now barely ventures through the door because she can’t enjoy a cigarette with her glass of wine, wandered in to the premises today happily smoking away. Or perhaps she wasn’t. I couldn’t tell. It certainly looked like a cigarette, and smoke appeared to be emanating from her nostrils, but there was no smell, no lingering cloud.
Instead, she was enjoying an electronic cigarette. In the dim and distant past of my childhood I remember a relative using a cigarette holder that provided a nicotine fix, but without the cigarette – or the smoke. He looked like a bit of a cross between Cesar Romero’s Joker, and Noel Coward. In other words, a bit of a nob.

But it did mean he was getting his fix without affecting those around him. Today’s version is a little more sophisticated, looking more like a cross between a biro and a science fiction cigarette, running on a battery that simultaneously heats up the nicotine to provide the smoker with the flavour and the ‘hit’ and making the tip glow red. Just like a real cigarette! And all that escapes from the user’s lips is a breathy puff of water vapour that dissipates almost instantly.
It could do for smoking what the hydrogen car might one day do for the internal combustion engine.
But while the Honda FCX Clarity might be able to save the polar bears, can the Smart Smoker really do the same for Britain’s pubs? Will people be comfortable watching others ‘smoke’ while they dine, or does the Electronic Cigarette deserve to exist only in the pages of a Peter F Hamilton novel?
The problem appears to be not with the fact that this device could be the answer to everyone’s prayers, but the fact that the perception of somebody smoking might be off putting. It seems that, business arguments aside, smoking in pubs appears to have become as visually offensive as somebody using a mobile phone whilst driving.
One diner, when quizzed on whether he found the device acceptable or not, pointed out that if he walked in and saw somebody apparently smoking at the bar, whether they were just exhaling water vapour or not, he would be inclined to leave again without enquiring further.
This leaves the publican with a huge dilemma. Having worked hard to build up a food trade to replace that lost by having had the smokers banished, letting them back in with a Star Trek equivalent to traditional tobacco might mean all that hard work and expense was for nothing.
So I’m curious to hear from publicans, smokers, non-smokers, diners and from anyone who has used one of these devices: what do you think of them? Smokers, would you use one in a pub? Diners, would you eat in a place that let these be used? Publicans, would you let smokers use them? Furthermore, are they a potential revenue stream?
Or are they as risible as the fortunes of the plug-in electric car?

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