E-cigarettes create a dilemma for health professionals and politicians.

With the big dig beginning for the central rail tunnel and site preparations under way for the convention centre and several other projects, the Auckland CBD has more than its usual quota of road cones and workers in hi-viz bibs these days.

Walking behind two of them on their lunch break this week I was struck by their similarity. It wasn't just the bibs and the fact that both were wearing shorts, woollen socks rolled down and boots. They ambled in exactly the same way, arms swinging, and in their left hand, pressed between the thumb and the tip of their forefinger, each carried the stub of a roll-your-own.

I wondered, not for the first time, how well our political class knew these people.

How well do those who survey their smoking, drinking and gambling habits for the Ministry of Health know them? Or the professors of public health who interrogate the survey results and census data for acceptable conclusions? Does any party in Parliament know them?


There's too much truth in the jibe I've heard from Bill English that, "the Labour Party these days doesn't represent the working class, it represents the measuring class". Labour eagerly endorses prescriptions offered by social researchers for every problem that amount to little more than another set of data for the researchers to work on.

When Andrew Little led the press to an "overcrowded" house in South Auckland a few weeks ago, only to find people were in the garage because the house was being refurbished, it was reported too gently as a minor embarrassment. In fact, it was an appalling indictment of the MPs who are supposed to be close to the people in the poorer parts of Auckland and I bet Little, in private, let them know it.

The Maori Party needs to be close to them too. The pair I've described looked to be Maori and I wondered what effect the party's latest anti-smoking efforts might have on them.

Tax hikes since 2010 have lifted the price of cigarettes to $22.50 a packet and the Budget last week programmed another four years of increases that will take the price to $30. Those guys will be working an hour a day for their smokes.

Will they mind? They certainly won't care that this week the Maori Party has also got the Government to go ahead with "plain packs", which in fact will be lurid packets featuring the most hideous diseases that can be attributed to tobacco.

They probably will have no more impact than the warnings printed prominently on packets for years but I doubt anyone cares, except the companies that can no longer display their brands as they would like.

Punishing the manufacturers always appears to be the primary motive of anti-smoking campaigns. If regulations such as mandatory plain packs could be proven to reduce smoking their advocates would have had no cause to worry about investor-state dispute provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The signatory governments agreed to deny tobacco companies TPP rights because they know smoking is not just a matter of science. It is about politics and when you get right down to it, about class.

We don't talk about class in the modern world and rightly so, we are a long way from Downton Abbey. But social mobility has not removed the tendency to distinguish ourselves by manners, language, style and tastes, which can be just as cruel.

Right now health professionals are in an exquisite dilemma over "e-cigarettes". Until e-cigarettes came along I thought nicotine was carcinogenic.

The way tobacco has been damned for its highly addictive and cancer causing properties has suggested they were the same thing. But it turns out they are quite different. Nicotine is the addictive element, the cancer is caused by tar and other toxins from burned leaf.

E-cigarettes put nicotine into water vapour that is drawn into the lungs. I don't know what harm that does, nor does the Ministry of Health, except that it is addictive. But we are allowed additive things such as alcohol and caffeine, so that can't be the reason nicotine in e-cigarettes is banned from sale in this country. (It can be brought in for personal use.)

The ministry might change its mind if it can be convinced "vaping" can help smokers quit, but why should it need that justification? If nicotine is not carcinogenic and not associated with the violence and car accidents of another drug we enjoy, where's the harm?

Could it be that vaping is too much like smoking? It gives the same air of relaxation and confidence to its users but to others is just not their style. And they make the rules.