Actor Sean Penn with an e-cigarette at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in September.
When Paco Torres feels the need for a cigarette he no longer fills his small sitting room with unpleasant smoke. He hasn’t kicked the habit altogether but he has swapped some of his traditional cigarettes for an electronic one.
A retired Telefónica worker, Paco has been smoking all his adult life. He admits that his e-cigarette, a recent birthday present, satisfies his craving for nicotine but is no match for a ‘Winston’, his favourite brand.
“It can’t replace the pleasure of smoking a real cigarette after a meal,” he says.
His family-imposed alternative is a tube filled with a liquid that contains nicotine, propylene glycol and other chemicals.
He settled for the basic package but had he wanted he could have chosen a fancy flavour: strawberry, mint or even bubble gum, with or without nicotine. And had Paco been more concerned about aesthetics he could have picked a model that resembled an elegant fountain pen in the colour of his choice, and his family could have spent anything from 20 to several hundred euros.
As it stands, his basic ‘Winston’ imitation never leaves the house. “It’s too heavy,” he says.
Battery-operated cigarettes that produce vapour instead of smoke have been on the market for a decade, but in recent months specialist stores have been popping up in high streets and shopping centres all over Spain.
The e-cigarettes have been marketed as a way of beating smoking bans in bars, restaurants and even public transport or hospitals.
Authorities have suddenly found themselves faced with a legal grey area. Cataluña and Andalucía have announced plans recently to ban e-cigarettes in public buildings.
Joaquín Gómez, a civil servant in his forties, is another longtime smoker who has partially switched to ‘vaping’. He says there is little evidence of the trend becoming a problem. Indeed, e-cigarette users, or ‘vapers’, are being more discreet than expected.
“When I’m in bars I don’t see them,” he says. “We go outside to ‘vape’ as we would to smoke. The vapour doesn’t smell unpleasant, but you do notice it.”
To be able to pass the appropriate legislation, the authorities need answers that as yet no one has been able to provide.
According to the sales pitch, electronic cigarettes are not harmful to your, or other people’s health and they can help to give up smoking. Doctors may disagree, but so far there are no official studies to prove or disprove these claims.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stresses that while health risks remain undetermined “consumers should be strongly advised not to use any of these products”.
Rather than an aid for giving up, the Spanish Cancer Association (AECC) sees electronic cigarettes as a step backwards.
“If people start using electronic cigarettes they will get used to having a substitute in places where they learned how to live without smoking,” says the association’s website.
Both Paco and Joaquín are clear that their “vapes” are not a first step towards giving up smoking altogether. They enjoy lighting up after dinner far too much.