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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.