When electronic cigarettes first appeared it all seemed so simple. They could replace cigarettes, but they weren’t cigarettes and using one wasn’t smoking, so all the rules about where you could or couldn’t smoke didn’t apply. Right? Well, maybe. Unfortunately, over the past few years the arguments around e-cigarettes have expanded, mutated and got mixed up with the decades-old campaign against tobacco, so it’s all become very complicated.

If you vape in public you’re probably used to people telling you, “You can’t smoke here.” That can be annoying, because of course you’re not smoking, and you’ll want to tell them that. Sadly lots of people just don’t know the difference, and many of them actually think vaping is as bad as smoking – or even worse. That’s not what the evidence says, but thanks to our dreadful media it’s what people believe. So how, as vapers, should we deal with that?

Modern vaping manners

Vaping is new enough that most people aren’t sure how it fits into our rules of etiquette, and that includes many vapers. Where is it okay to vape? Should we obey no smoking signs? What should we say if someone challenges us for vaping? And should we stand up for ourselves when we think we’re in the right, or beat a tactical retreat in the interests of our reputation?

Sadly, these questions matter. The UK is probably the most enlightened country in the world when it comes to vaping. The percentage of smokers who’ve switched is higher than anywhere else, the government isn’t falling over itself trying to implement the EU’s laws and there are no proposals to impose a tax on vapour products or pass laws restricting where you can vape. On the other hand a huge slice of the public still equate vaping with smoking, and ignorance about the health effects is rife.

vaping in public spaces
A cheeky stealth vape

I fought the law… or did I?

It isn’t against the law to vape anywhere in the UK. There are laws about where it’s legal to smoke, and if you break them you can end up in court, but the government hasn’t extended these laws to cover vaping and doesn’t have any plans to. Does that mean you have a right to vape wherever you like? Well, no.

Anyone who owns property has a right to decide what people can do in it. There are some restrictions, such as anti-discrimination laws, but vapers don’t fall under those. What this means is that if you’re in a bar or restaurant, and the staff tell you that you’re not allowed to vape, you can’t argue with them. Most so-called public spaces still belong to someone, and that person gets to make the rules if they’re within the law.

If someone tells you “This is a no smoking area,” it might be worth politely pointing out that you’re not smoking and then asking if they have a specific policy on vaping. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t know, ask if you can speak to the manager. It’s vital to stay calm and diplomatic, though; if you start shouting about your rights then a) you’re going to lose and b) you’ll create a terrible impression of vapers.

On the other hand, being reasonable can get you a surprisingly long way. A lot of people just don’t understand vaping, so you have the chance to educate them. Be armed with some handy references – the Public Health England and Royal College of Physicians reviews are good, as is PHE’s advice that vaping should not routinely be included in smoke-free policies.

But muh clouds, bro!

Don’t chase clouds in a public place. Even if you’re in a bar that allows vaping, blowing enormous, dense plumes of vapour is going to cause problems. Most people see it as just showing off, and unfortunately that sort of thing is a lot more likely to stick in their minds than the majority who vape sensibly in public.

Generally, the public expect to see a reasonable-sized cloud from an e-cigarette, and the majority aren’t too bothered by it unless they find themselves enveloped. A ten-foot instant fog bank is a different story. If you do that in a busy pub it’s almost certain that somebody’s going to complain. What happens next is likely to be a total vaping ban, because that’s simpler to enforce than trying to set limits on what’s acceptable.

vaping in public
Big clouds in public spaces?

What about stealthing?

Stealth vaping is a touchy subject. The last thing we need is for a vaper to set off the smoke detectors in an airliner toilet; that sort of negative publicity would be very harmful (and yes, vapour will trigger them). On the other hand, if you have a sneaky puff on a railway station platform and nobody even notices, what’s the harm? At the end of the day whether or not to stealth is a personal decision. Just don’t do it anywhere the consequences will be expensive or newsworthy.

vaping indoors
Always check the venues vaping policy

If in doubt, ask

Most people, if you ask politely and don’t ostentatiously fog the place up, will be happy enough to let you vape, so ask. If you’re visiting friends, ask if it’s fine to vape in their house. The first time you go into a pub or restaurant, ask if they have a policy on vaping. If you do this right away and they say it’s not allowed you can always go somewhere else, which might make them think! The important thing is that if someone tells you that you can’t vape on their property, they’re within your rights and arguing with them is a bad idea.

Right now, the debate about public vaping could go either way. Some people want us treated just like smokers; others are more tolerant. It’s up to each of us to make sure it goes in our favour. The best way we can do that is by being considerate of others and showing them that vapers can act in a way that deserves respect.