E-cigarettes: the conspiracy theorists might just have it right

What’s really going on behind these clouds of nicotine-infused vapour?

Addiction is an emotive subject, to put it mildly. As such, when reading reactions to the news that electronic cigarettes may be regulated as a medicinal product from 2016, it’s easy to lose all sense amidst the roaring.

For some, this is all down to lobbying from Big Tobacco, aimed at pricing e-cig makers out of the market with red tape before they can further erode the monopoly on addiction. For others, it’s Big Pharma trying to quash competition for its sprays, gums and patches by restricting surrogate fags to the pharmacy counter. Another set think this is the government, scared witless of losing revenue from tobacco taxes.

For others still it’s grey-faced, life-hating Eurocrats, engaged in their endless struggle to quash life’s pleasures and make everyone into a cycle-riding vegan.  Then there are the people who’ve forgotten what’s actually happening and are just using comments sections to bark about how much they love or hate smoking. But what’s really going on behind these obfuscating clouds of nicotine-infused vapour?

Naively assuming that no conspiracy theories are in play, the situation seems to revolve around the fact that an unregulated market of 1.3 million people, which it is estimated will be worth £250m in 2014, has sprung up virtually overnight, and has huge cultural links to smoking. The broad aim of the EU Tobacco Products Directive – which is to drive the regulation in question – is to reduce uptake of tobacco smoking in young people, and its logic seems to be that if e-cigs can be sold anywhere and everywhere, it may actually bring impressionable teens into the smoker’s fold.

Whether the risk of this happening outweighs the benefit that e-cig availability has in taking career smokers away from flammables is genuinely up for debate. That said, I am inclined to agree with Rob Lyons of Sp!ked, who argues that “to block people from accessing this escape route is rather like padlocking fire doors on the off-chance that someone tries to break in.”

The second (non-tinfoil-hatted) argument for the regulation of e-cigs is the fact that there are currently no enforceable standards for product safety. But while it is possible that moustache-twirling manufacturers could cut their propylene glycol with rat poison, there’s currently no evidence to suggest that electronic cigarettes are harmful, and nicotine in itself is the least of a smoker’s health worries.

Nevertheless, even if one does come to the conclusion that regulating replacement cigarettes will be a boon to public health, it’s impossible to think about the issue for long without being consumed by the screaming irony of the whole debate.

As Diane Abbott pointed out, for the government to build up regulation for e-cigs just a month after caving in on the issue of standardised, non-enticing packaging for real, poisonous cigarettes, is frankly bizarre, and really does cause one to wonder what conversations are going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps, in this case, some of the conspiracy theorists have got it spot on. 

E-cigarettes face new regulation. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt