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Washing through the St. James Centre, I bump into a very focused young man, who looks as fierce as a Jehovah’s Witness, and he delivers a slick crash course on the use of the electronic cigarette. Thirty years ago, the e-cigarette would have been regarded as a children’s toy – a pretend plastic cigarette, from which one inhales a harmless nicotine vapour – but today it promises a startlingly easy technological solution to a longstanding and, in many quarters, profoundly cherished cultural battle.

It may seem like smoking an I-pod. One may expel blasts of vapour like a whale, or feel like a baby sucking on a dummy. The glowing red tip renders it reminiscent of those plastic rifles which you see hanging up in Poundland. But the e-cigarette ultimately leaves one feeling somewhat drained. Why were previous generations “half at one another’s throats” over questions of passive smoking and antisocial behaviour, when they could have just stuck this invention in their traps and cleared their heads of these fumes? If the e-cigarette had been invented in the seventies, then the last few decades would have been appreciably more peaceful.

“And can I smoke this anywhere?” I interrupt the Jehovah.

“Anywhere,” he affirms with a blink, before launching into an itinerary of all the places where the e-cigarette can be smoked. At work, in an aeroplane, even here in the St. James Centre. And he stands back and puffs on his e-cigarette, as smartly as a ballet dancer giving a twirl.

The e-cigarette has been around for several years, but it is still marketed with a certain embarrassment. The manufacturers have decided that it should be strategically promoted as a helpful quitting aid, rather than as a straightforward replacement to the old cigarettes. Outfits such as Marlboro have put their name to flavoured e-juices, rather than declaring tobacco to be obsolete and shutting down their cigarette factories for good. The e-cigarette is generally sold by cranks and two-bit characters, whom the big tobacco conglomerates have not yet rounded up and had run out of town.

Perhaps the e-cigarette knows that it needs to remain inconspicuous in order to survive. There would be mass hysteria if people woke up and the supermarkets were filled with e-cigarettes. People would tear their hair out if the government admitted that it was okay for children to smoke them (which it is). Successive governments have inflated their authority by legislating against tobacco, and if the masses were suddenly “smoking” openly throughout the nation, then the ruling class would be terminally discredited.

I inhale from the proffered e-cigarette and taste the nicotine as clean as water, rather than searching for it through all the mud and grit of tobacco. There is an oddity, I concede, of a cigarette which remains forever the same length, although if it gradually shortened to simulate the real experience of smoking then the unfortunate smoker may crush it or flick it away by accident. I recognise that marijuana could be effortlessly disguised as an e-cigarette attachment, so that everybody could smoke weed everywhere whilst those in authority peered and frowned and sniffed helplessly.

It seems too easy, too good to be true, and, handing back the e-cigarette, I find myself instinctively objecting to this utopian invention. Maybe my grandchildren will smoke it, maybe one day the world will accept it, but it now seems like something which belongs to a superior civilisation. Future generations, floating about their space-station cities like angels, will puff away on e-cigarettes and nod together blissfully in a great cloud of nicotine steam.

[On questions of technology, Tychy has previously covered Asimo’s public appearance in Edinburgh and reviewed the Amazon Kindle. Ed.]