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

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

E-cigarettes face new regulation. Photograph: Getty Images

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.