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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.