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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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.