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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.