Lesser of Two Evils

Published: Aug 28 , 2015
Author: Robin Copland

I was interested by a  report I read on the NHS website in which Public Health England published an “evidence review” about e-cigarettes, stating that they were 95% safer than cigarettes and that, further, they were an effective quitting aid for smokers.  As a result of the review, e-cigarettes are to be licensed and regulated as an aid to quit smoking from 2016.

Manufacturers will be encouraged to apply to the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to have e-cigarettes classified as a medicine (you couldn’t make this up!).  Talking about their potential health risks to users the story continues, “We don’t really know until they have been thoroughly assessed and monitored in a large population over time. However, compared with regular cigarettes, they are certainly the lesser of two evils” (my highlight).

Those who campaign for the legalisation of certain drugs use the same argument: rather than have the drugs controlled by criminals, would it not be better to de-classify them and control both their distribution and usage?

OK – so I’m not going to enter into an argument about the legalisation of drugs, nor the medicinal benefits of vaping, but the “lesser of two evils” is a technique well-known to negotiators who are keen to get the other side to agree to something that they might otherwise reject.  What they do is to offer an even more unpalatable alternative in the fond hope that the other side will accept the lesser evil of the two. 

It’s a tactic that tends to be used in extreme circumstances, for example on death row, you are sometimes given a choice: death by lethal injection or the electric chair.  By the time you get to that stage in proceedings, mind you, you might very well argue that the time for negotiations is over!


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Robin Copland
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