Are e-cigarettes really that much safer than smoking tobacco? I’m not convinced

Plus, now we know: Cameron dreams up his policy in Waitrose


The tobacco industry certainly has this Government by the short and curlies. Ministers have announced yet another consultation into plain packaging for cigarettes, even though they’ve produced a report saying that standard packaging could reduce smoking. On Thursday, the health minister announced that new legislation was “planned”, but I think you’ll have time to puff a few hundred fags before anything hits the statute book.

The Government has been equally dilatory over e-cigarettes, even though it gets very exercised about drugs like ecstasy and ketamine (just found to be very useful in treating depression, used in very small quantities) – moving them up the rankings and increasing penalties for use. Yet for many months, children all over the UK have been puffing on totally unregulated sticks of nicotine and getting addicted without anyone getting that bothered.

E-cigarettes might be touted as an aid to quitting smoking, but they won’t stop users from getting wrinkles – the biggest argument for nicotine patches. About 1.3 million people use the gadgets – some of which are clearly designed to appeal to the young – and their success has caught regulators on the back foot.

There are few restrictions on advertising e-cigarettes. More importantly, unlike patches and gum, the purity of the nicotine they contain is unregulated, and that is not expected to change until 2016. Anyone can buy and use them until a bill going through Parliament restricts the sale to over-18s.

The NHS says that compared with regular cigarettes, the e version is the lesser of two evils. I disagree, and so does the Welsh health minister who wants to see them banned in enclosed public spaces. As the Welsh Government consults on how to proceed, it will be besieged by the tobacco industry, which is investing heavily in e-cigarette companies and has a vested interest in sanitising a dangerous habit.

Smokers now gather in sad clusters around the entrances to buildings, and I notice that their pay is not docked for the time wasted. E-cigarettes (which you can use inside) just make the act of smoking seem more acceptable, and once you are addicted, it will be easier to switch to the real thing.

Doctors may say that e-cigarettes will prevent deaths, but at what cost? Are some addictions more acceptable than others? My sister smoked herself to death, so you know where I am coming from. Tax e-cigarettes so that they cost as much as the real thing. Ban their use in enclosed spaces. And prevent them being from sold to anyone under 21.

So it’s Waitrose where Cameron dreams up policy

Only a few weeks ago, politicians were falling over themselves to claim they were in touch with ordinary folk and loved a spot of bingo. George Osborne was even photographed working out where to put his chips. This week, the chaps in charge are flaunting their supermarket credentials in order to “connect” with us plebs. David Cameron, addressing staff at a John Lewis store in Greater Manchester, indulged in a spot of “in-store sociology”, claiming that he visited Sainsbury’s and Waitrose regularly and had groceries delivered by Ocado, finding shoppers in Waitrose to be the most thoughtful and “engaged”. He has discovered that “everyone just wants to have a chat”.

I suppose that’s how Mr Cameron develops policies like shirking from imposing a minimum price per unit on alcohol. Nick Clegg, quick to jump on the bandwagon (or perhaps it should be the supermarket trolley), tells us that recently he has shopped at Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco. I suppose that qualifies him to run Britain plc.

I feel sorry for the checkout staff at my local Waitrose, who ask the same question every time I visit. “How has your day been so far?” My day would be sublime if the Clerkenwell branch of Waitrose was not one of the most overpriced food stores in central London. The range of produce has gradually shrunk and it now caters primarily for singletons who can’t cook real meals.

If Cameron did his research, he’d find that at his local Sainsbury’s the shoppers might not be chatty, because they are concentrating on careful choices to keep their food bills down. According to Labour, families are £1,600 a year worse off since the Coalition took over. When I want a chat, I stand on a Tube train or go to the post office. It’s a lot cheaper than buying polenta at Waitrose.

For once, there’s something for teens to be proud about

Like pensioners, teenagers are regularly lumped together into one homogenous category. We’re told that a large number lack social skills, are illiterate, refuse to speak in sentences, are addicted to screens and their phones, and have unrealistic ideas about work. Actually, today’s teenagers seem the same as when I was one half a century ago. I didn’t speak to my parents for three years, was totally self-obsessed, consistently lied about my whereabouts, couldn’t wait to lose my virginity, and tried all kinds of booze.

A Martian reading media coverage about British teenagers might assume that they constitute a huge social problem, whereas I find that most are delightful company, probably because I’ve never really bothered to grow up and act sensibly. And now, at last, there’s a piece of good news that this misrepresented group can brag about.

An important survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks our teenagers as world-class winners at solving real-life problems. Sod applied maths and the history of the Tudors: the OECD tests ranked 15-year-olds in England’s schools above every other EU country except Finland, and placed them 11th in the world at performing tasks such as using gadgets, plotting destinations on a map, setting a thermostat and choosing the cheapest stuff from catalogues.

All these skills are vital when it comes to getting a job, so what educators should do is build on our natural talents and forget about the pointless stuff that winds us up, such as remembering dates in the 16th century, and maths problems that modern technology can solve for us in a trice. David Willetts is still harping on about sending more teenagers to university when what we desperately need are plumbers, builders, technicians and practical problem-solvers.

Advice for toddlers that adults could benefit from

Ofsted has issued a list of 10 skills children need before they start at primary school, including toilet training, the ability to know their own name, and to understand the word “stop” and that it might be used to prevent harm. They must also be able to open a book and enjoy it, understand the use of the word “no”, to be able to sit still and listen, and be aware of other children.

Some early-years experts have sneered, saying it’s more important for kids to be able to express themselves creatively than know their own name or how to use a toilet. I couldn’t disagree more. We are now reaping the fallout from parents not implementing enough rules to discipline their offspring. MP Rory Stewart hit a nerve recently when he complained that too many parents “worship” their children, treating them as equals and making them the focus of attention.

The real problem is that after a certain hour in cities and towns all over the UK, you see a large number of adults who can’t recognise their own name, can’t use the toilet, don’t know the meaning of the word “no” and certainly can’t put their coats and shoes on. Perhaps Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Ofsted list could be laminated and fixed to the door of every pub serving cheap booze. If you fail more than four out of the 10 toddler rules, you’re banned.

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