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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.