The best news last week came from an unlikely source. Enterprise Inns doesn't always attract good publicity, but it's just become the first sizeable pub company that I'm aware to endorse electronic cigarettes in a supply deal with manufacturer Nicolites.
Enterprise is to make them available to its 5,400 tenants, and according to the press release is encouraging them to stock them as an alternative to tobacco cigs. Not all of the pubs will take up the offer, of course, but this marks a break from a trend among managed pubcos to ban’ vaping’, as the use of e-cigs is known, on their premises.
Although they produce no smoke, Mitchells & Butlers, JD Wetherspoon and Fuller's say they confuse their staff and might make other customers think they can light up a proper fag - a reasoning I find a little far-fetched, especially now that most e-cigs don't look like cigarettes at all (although I did see someone in the pub the other day puffing on a stonking great electronic pipe).
Enterprise's move could prove significant. The debate around vaping is heating up. There's a real battle going on about how they should be regulated. The UK's public health lobby is split. The British Medical Association, for instance, fears e-cigs will 'renormalise' smoking and entice children into the habit, and wants e-cigs included in the ban on smoking in public places, while Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is more positive about their role in helping people to stop smoking.
Surely the overriding consideration has to be that e-cigs are safer than tobacco, possibly a hundred times safer, according to what we know so far. Nicotine itself is an almost harmless drug. Smokers who are using e-cigs to quit, or cut down, shouldn't have to wait years for research to formally confirm this. And they're not. The most recent estimate that there are 1.3 million vapers in the country may already be hugely conservative and Enterprise's nod of approval will accelerate the market trend further. Some publicans might be able to make a bit of money out of selling e-cigs and even win back some of the trade they lost because of the smoking ban.
And ironically, with the alcohol lobby pushing for a promotion of public health licensing objective, selling e-cigs could be a really good way for pubs to do just that.