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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad