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As little as 50 years ago smoking was widespread and, in many places, considered the norm. Not just for men, but women too, with smoking seen as a pleasant social activity and even portrayed as glamorous, grown up and 'cool'.

Most offices and many other workplaces permitted smoking, while in pubs, clubs, cinemas and theatres the air was thick with cigarette smoke. Smoking in TV shows, from intellectual arts programmes right through to popular soap operas, was commonplace and went unquestioned. Even leading sportsmen of the day were regular smokers, many top footballers lighting up as soon as they were back in the dressing room.

Film and TV stars benefited from lucrative endorsement deals to promote various tobacco brands. Advertising was almost entirely unrestricted, with wealthy tobacco companies dominating sports sponsorship, especially motorsport, and cigarette advertising found in every medium, from giant roadside billboards to newspapers and magazines.

Cigarettes were relatively cheap, not yet subject to punitive tax levels, while the multiple and serious health effects of smoking were either unknown, disputed and dismissed, or just plain ignored. For millions of people and in countless social settings and communities, smoking cigarettes was just the thing to do, almost something you grew into, a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.

For the tobacco companies those were the golden days – but times have changed. In the UK at least, cigarette smokers are becoming an increasingly rare and elusive breed. With smoking no longer allowed in the vast majority of public places, including pubs, clubs, cafés and virtually all workplaces, smokers are 'confined' to their homes or to cold, draughty and often hastily-constructed outdoor 'smoking shelters'.

With massive and indisputable evidence of the catastrophic health effects of smoking, society has turned its back on the once-tolerated and even openly encouraged habit. Smokers have almost become social outcasts, some NHS Trusts even proposing controversial measures to deny treatment to smokers who refuse to kick the habit.

But as anyone who has ever smoked knows only too well, giving up is not that easy. The nicotine in cigarettes makes them highly addictive, more so than may illegal drugs according to some experts. While some people seem able to smoke just the odd cigarette now and then as the fancy takes them, for most smokers it is a compelling urge which needs to be regularly fed.

It's an expensive habit too, with a packet of 20 cigarettes now costing around £9.60 – about 75% of which is tax. For someone with a fairly typical 20-a-day habit, that's the thick end of £70 per week to fork out on cigarettes. And while it's easy for society to now vilify and stigmatise smokers, it is also unfair and harsh.

Having spent years encouraging people to take up a highly addictive habit, or at best doing little to discourage them, how can society then chastise and even punish those same people for failing to give it up? In the case of long-term, even lifelong, smokers, society must bear part of the blame.

A more recent development has been the rapid rise in popularity of 'e-cigarettes', also known as 'vaping'. An e-cigarette is a handheld electronic device which vaporises a flavoured liquid which the user then inhales in the same way as smoking conventional cigarettes.

Introduced to the UK around a decade ago, e-cigarettes are now used by around three million people, with sales continuing to rise steadily. Though it's early days, research indicates the adverse effects on health of e-cigarettes are significantly smaller than conventional cigarettes – up to 95% less harmful according to Public Health England. The toxic and harmful tar in cigarettes smoke is not present in vaping, though many of the liquids used in 'e-cigs' still contain nicotine to ease the craving experienced by smokers.

Now there is growing evidence that e-cigs are helping more and more people successfully quit tobacco. Research by the British Medical Journal indicates that while e-cigs have had little or no effect on the number of people trying to quit, they have increased the numbers who actually manage to stop smoking. Figures for 2015 suggest that vaping may have helped around 18,000 extra people in England quit smoking in that year alone.

There are even calls for e-cigs to be made widely available on the NHS to people committed to giving up smoking, after successes in a few small-scale trials. NHS stop-smoking programmes already prescribe various medications and nicotine replacement therapies to help people quit, but the evidence seems to suggest more and more people are finding their own solution with e-cigs.

"The British public have voted with their feet and are choosing to use e-cigarettes," said Professor Linda Bauld, of Cancer Research UK. "This is a positive choice and we should promote it."

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