The “E-Cigarette Summit” at the Royal Academy in London, November 2013. Photo: Getty.
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Laurie Penny on e-cigarettes: It's not harming anyone, so why is Brussels trying to remove my robot cigarette?

You can take my fake smokes from my warm, blood-beating hands.

The glory days of fake smoking are nearly over. Soon, if the EU and several American states have their way, electronic-cigarette nerds will no longer be able to sit smugly indoors, breathing out clean nicotine vapour, toying with our silly cyberpunk drug-delivery-devices and feeling sorry for the ordinary smokers shivering in the cold. The proposed EU regulations will make it far harder to buy, sell and use e-cigarettes, and might pull them off the shelves altogether.

I’ve been using electronic cigarettes for some time, because I love to smoke but am less than thrilled by the prospect of choking to death in my sixties. I’m unreasonably cross about the proposed legislation as only an addict can be. Imagine the howling rage of a toddler having its teething ring snatched away and combine that with the shaky, instinctive spite of a junkie anticipating withdrawal. That’s the kind of cross I am.

It was just getting to the point where I could enjoy a fake smoke in peace without having to explain to interested bystanders five or six times a day how the device in my hands actually works: a nicotine-glycerine liquid with a battery that super-heats when you draw on it, plus a nifty little flashing light that lets you pretend you’re a robot assassin from the future. I love my robot cigarette and I don’t want anyone to take it away.

Foot-stomping aside, the raft of legislation against electronic cigarettes is preposterous and illogical. E-cigarettes are one of the most effective ways of reducing the amount of damage Britain’s 10 million smokers are doing to their bodies every day, aside from ­going cold turkey, which not everybody is ready to do.

Smoking is responsible for more deaths annually than road accidents, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, murder and suicide combined, so a nicotine delivery system that allows people to avoid the major health risks of smoking while continuing to enjoy their vice would seem eminently sensible, unless you are of the opinion that smoking is a failure of character that should be stamped out.

The problem a lot of people seem to have is simply that electronic cigarettes are cheating, which, of course, they are. You get the basic kick of smoking without having to suck thousands of poisons into your tortured lungs. There are few conclusive studies on the long-term health effects of “vaping” but it’s largely agreed that it’s much better for you than tobacco, and a bit worse for you than not sucking on a stick of nicotine all day. I’m a fan of that sort of cheating. I believe in using technology to save lives, which for confirmed smokers is just what e-cigs are doing.

Micro-tyrannies such as this might not seem to matter much, but for millions of people who find it hard to quit, e-cigarettes have been a lifeline. Nicotine is one of the world’s most addictive substances. It would have to be, since it has to work against millions of years of evolution telling us not to put burning things in our mouths on a regular basis.

Smoking is an absurdly dangerous thing to do. That, of course, is part of the reason smokers do it. This is not the 1960s and few, if any, smokers can have failed to understand, when they took the first few musty head-spinning drags on their first cigarette, that the habit would kill them one day. Anti-smoking advocates tell us that young people don’t really understand what smoking will do to our bodies but I don’t think my generation have ever believed ourselves “immortal”. We just want a bit more control over the horrible things that will eventually happen to us, and part of being young is believing that you can have that control.

Compassion is the most important feature of public-health policy. I’m no David Hockney, obstinately demanding that smoking legislation of any kind is “the most grotesque piece of social engineering”. In fact, I supported the 2007 smoking ban. The bloodlessness of bureaucracy certainly made elements of the ban vindictive – particularly restrictions on the use of tobacco in mental-health wards and care homes, whose inmates can hardly pop outside for a cheeky one.

Overall, though, I’m a firm believer that humans should be permitted to do as much damage to their own bodies as they like, provided they aren’t hurting others in the process – I would no more light a cigarette in front of a child than I would poison a public fountain for my own pleasure. And that’s where the prospect of a ban on e-cigs, whose vapour is lighter than tobacco smoke, and rarely reaches the lungs of another person, makes no sense. It’s not about public health. It’s about morality.

The idea that e-cigarettes should be subject to the same restrictions as the leaf-burning variety once again confuses ethics with petty moral panic. To encourage addicts not to indulge their addiction where it might cause harm to children or the sick is ethical. To claim, as some do, that evidence of addiction is itself offensive and unsightly is simple prudishness. I find it unsightly when otherwise attractive young men grow ridiculous hipster moustaches but I would stop short of regulating public display of facial hair. I just avoid certain bars during Movember.

You can take my fake smokes from my warm, blood-beating hands. No, really, you probably can take them, if “you” are the EU, or the state of New York. We cannot have a compassionate, effective policy on drugs and addiction without starting from a place of compassion, and if our stance on smoking stops with an idea of moral weakness, we have forfeited compassion. Now, stick that in your flashing electronic pipe and smoke it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com