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Sunday
Oct262014

Welcome to the world's most expensive cross-Channel ferry

It's been a curious week.

On Thursday (and Friday) I was in Dublin. Now I'm on Cunard's Queen Victoria.

It’s Day Two of a three-night mini-cruise that began yesterday in Southampton.

Technically we're “at sea” all day today. In practise we’re at anchor in the North Sea waiting to enter Zeebrugge harbour I don't know when. (I've been far too busy eating and drinking to check the schedule.)

Tomorrow we'll face a difficult decision: get a taxi/train to Bruges and spend the day shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other sweaty tourists, or stay on board the world’s most luxurious expensive cross-Channel ferry.

Tough choice.

Barring unforeseen developments normal service will resume here on Tuesday.

Tuesday
Oct212014

Hidden Charms to play Forest birthday bash

Delighted to announce that rising stars Hidden Charms will perform at Forest's 35th anniversary party on November 4.

"Infectious R&B with just a hint of youthful swagger … Hidden Charms have a giddy energy, a dancefloor frenzy which is more suited to legendary Mod club Tiles than any modern super-club." (Clash)

I'm told the band have been recording in Los Angeles and an EP or album will be released next year.

In the meantime you can download 'Sunnyside', their first (hugely infectious) track, also featured in the videos above and below:

"Clocking in at just over two minutes long, so it never outstays its welcome, this is spunky and funky blues-infused rock for a whole new generation." (Record of the Day)

See also: New Noise - Hidden Charms (Wonderland)

Oh, and the band is featured in the November issue of Tatler which has commissioned this short film with model Iana Godnia:

Hidden Charms: playing live at Forest's 35th anniversary bash at Boisdale of Belgravia on Tuesday November 4.

For further details click here.

To register email events@forestonline.org or call Nicky on 01223 370156.

Saturday
Oct182014

Times and Mail re-hash story about Chief Medical Officer taking hash

There's a rather amusing report in the Mail:

Chief medic who called for ban on smoking in parks accused of double standards after she admitted using hash cakes and hallucinating

I was asked to comment but I was keen not to criticise Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies for using cannabis. Each to their own, I say.

I only wish Dame Sally was as tolerant of those who smoke.

Anyway this was my response to her 'confession' which appeared in The Times following her much derided support for a ban on smoking in parks:

Simon Clark, director of the smokers' group Forest, said: 'She was happy to eat hash cakes when she was young. Now she wants to stop people smoking a legal product in the open air where there is no risk to anyone other than themselves.

'The idea that adults have to be role models for the next generation is ridiculous. Let today's youth find their own way, just as Dame Sally did when she was young. Educate but don't over-regulate.

'Unfortunately today's public health industry is driven by control freaks like Dame Sally who want to micro-manage our lives in a way they would never have accepted when they were young.'

What was interesting about The Times' interview was her brazen attempt to spin herself out of the hole she had dug herself earlier in the week.

For example, she told The Times she doesn't want to be the nation's nanny … "The more we can nudge rather than regulate the better."

Laughably the paper fell for this guff. The Chief Medical Officer "is not one to moralise", readers were told.

So when Dame Sally says parents need to be more careful about the example they set, that's not moralising?

Her inquisitors – Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson – also swallowed without argument statements such as "The impact of the smoking ban has been dramatic" (yes, thousands of pubs closed) and "The impact in Australia of standardised packaging has been dramatic". Evidence?

It's puff pieces like this that give newspapers a bad name.

Anyway, back to Dame Sally's fleeting experience of cannabis. We've been here before. The CMO's brief flirtation with hash cakes was first reported in August last year.

The Mail for example reported: I've taken cannabis, says chief medical officer: Britain's top doctor admits experimenting at university.

This was duly followed up by The Times (Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies admits: ‘I took cannabis’) and others including Sky News (Medical chief Sally Davies 'ate hash cookies').

So this is literally a re-hash of a story about hash. You couldn't make it up.

Friday
Oct172014

Parks smoking ban "illiberal" writes Indy editor

Speaking about the proposed ban on smoking in London parks, Boris Johnson said:

"This idea in my view, as a libertarian conservative, comes down too much on the side of bossiness and nannying.

"One feature of life in London is that we are a city that allows people to get on with their lives within the law provided they are not harming anyone else.

"I think smoking is a scourge and it's right to discourage it (but) I am very sceptical at the moment" (my emphasis).

According to the Telegraph he went on:

"I have to think back to my own life two decades ago when my wife and I had a baby.

"It came to that point when everybody was asleep and I was in such a mood of absolute elation I wondered out into a park in Islington and it was in the middle of winter but I laid on the ground and had a cigar.

"I don't want to be in a city where somebody can stand over me and say you've got to pay £115 for doing something that is of no harm to anybody except me."

Frankly, I'm nervous about anything Boris says. We all remember him nominating the existing smoking ban for Room 101. Now he supports it.

I'm reluctant too to accept his evaluation of himself as a "libertarian conservative". After all, one of the first things he did as Mayor of London was ban alcohol on the Underground when we already had laws to deal with drunken or anti-social behaviour.

I think he's libertarian by instinct but the politician inside him kicks in. Also, like many 'conservatives', the idea of actually rolling back the power of the state is too radical so he accepts the status quo.

Nevertheless Boris's comments were welcome because they took the wind from a proposal that could have developed momentum very quickly.

Less expected were these comments by Amol Rajan, editor of the Independent. Writing in the London Evening Standard, Rajan declared:

My smoking in a park may harm you. A wisp of the smelly stuff might drift into your nostrils. Watching me take a drag could cause you anguish or dismay. And you could trip up over one of my abandoned butts, smash your head on a bench and die.

None of these, however, is likely. Therefore, the idea of making it illegal to smoke in public parks is an illiberal and unwarranted incursion of the state into our lives.

He concluded:

A lack of liberty is one problem eroding our culture; another, less noticed, is the spirit of witless puritanism that makes educated people think it reasonable to consider a ban on smoking in parks.

See Stop witless puritans banning a puff in the park.

The curious thing is, I can't think of a single national newspaper that is editorially more anti-tobacco than the Independent (not even the Guardian) so this quite a statement.

It demonstrates the anti-smoking brigade has a way to go before they win this particular battle.

They won't give up, of course. Indeed, former Labour minister Tessa Jowell – a potential Labour candidate for Mayor of London in 2016, when Boris steps down – has already said she'll introduce the ban if she becomes Mayor.

So we have a fight on our hands.

If you want to make your feelings known I suggest you come to Forest's 35th anniversary party at Boisdale of Belgravia on Tuesday November 4. That's as good a place as any to begin the revolution!

Thursday
Oct162014

Yesterday

Well, that was a long and occasionally bizarre day.

The announcement that the London Health Commission – a body set up by Mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2013 – wants to ban smoking in the capital's parks and squares sparked a mini media frenzy.

For me the day began at 5.00am (following four hours' sleep) when I scoured the newspapers, online and in print, to see how much coverage the story was getting.

It was front page on the Daily Mail and the story – and Forest's response – was also featured in the Guardian, Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star. Online our comments were featured on a hundred or more media websites including BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4 News, LBC, Reuters and many more.

At 5.40 I got a request to appear on Good Morning Britain (ITV) at 7.00 but I could't because I was still at home in Cambridgeshire.

Instead, at 6.05 I talked to Paul Ross and Penny Smith on BBC Radio London before driving to Huntingdon to catch a train to Kings Cross.

Shortly after nine I was in a taxi en route to Broadcasting House for a series of back-to-back BBC local radio interviews:

BBC Radio Kent
BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire
BBC Radio Shropshire
BBC Radio Surrey & Sussex
BBC Radio Devon
BBC Radio Berkshire
BBC Radio Cornwall
BBC Radio Sheffield
BBC Radio Stoke
BBC Radio Leicester
BBC Radio Scotland
BBC Radio Gloucestershire

Next stop – following a coffee break at Caffe Nero directly outside the entrance to Broadcasting House (lots of BBC employees in the smoking area!) – was the ITV News studios in Gray's Inn Road.

My opponent was former Labour minister Tessa Jowell but having travelled to the studio and waited 30 minutes to do a live interview we were given no time at all to make our points.

Watching at home, Dan Donovan commented: "Took me longer to eat a sandwich."

My next appointment was in a small park, Paddington Street Gardens. No, I'd never heard of it either and nor had the cab driver.

When we found it I made a beeline for the BBC cameraman in the corner and we were soon joined by health correspondent Branwen Jeffreys and an old adversary Dr Alan Maryon-Davies.

It must be eight years since Branwen and I last met but I remember it vividly because it was the day MPs voted for a comprehensive smoking ban (February 14, 2006).

Like yesterday it was a long day punctuated with numerous interviews in a variety of locations across central London.

My first interview with Branwen was in the morning at the King's Head pub in Islington. Later I was asked to go back and be interviewed again, after MPs had voted, and I recall pitching up tired, desperate for a pint, and in a resigned, somewhat flippant mood.

Branwen got several commentators to line up in front of the bar – I felt like the condemned man – and she went down the line inviting us to say a few words.

I was holding a pint in one hand and it was the only moment in my life I wished I was a smoker so I could have lit a cigarette and exhaled with the sort of insouciance that epitomises the coolest smokers.

Anyway, I won't forget yesterday's meeting in a hurry either. One, Branwen wore an electric pink coat that will be seared on my brain forever.

Two, we had a really good laugh – and I include Alan Maryon-Davies in that. (Alan and I have crossed swords several times on radio but in person he's very charming.)

Anyway, Branwen had decided she wanted to do something a bit different. So the three of us were filmed walking together, chatting intensely.

Alan and I were then filmed facing one another, deep in conversation. Over and over we repeated the points we wanted to make while the cameraman swooped around us.

Occasionally one or both of us went off piste. At one point I suggested there should be "adult only" parks which prompted quizzical looks followed by a sudden burst of laughter.

It was a slightly facetious comment but the more I think about it the better it sounds! Why should children dictate everything adults can and can't do in public?

The whole thing took 30 minutes to film. Inevitably the broadcast report was a fraction of that, with Alan and I given no more than a ten-second soundbite apiece, but it was fun to film.

Then it was back to Gray's Inn Road to record a brief interview (in another small park) for ITV's Evening News. It wasn't broadcast, as far as I know.

Come 4.30 I was at the Millbank Studios in Westminster doing a live interview on Sky News with Kay Burley, followed by a recorded interview to be broadcast later.

I was also booked to do CNN but that was cancelled because of the developing ebola story. Instead my final interview – at 9.00pm – was with the BBC News Channel, back at Broadcasting House.

I arrived home at 11.30.

Thankfully Forest wasn't alone yesterday. Other opponents of excessive regulation pitched in and were vocal in their condemnation of the plan.

Stephanie Lis, representing the Institute of Economic Affairs, did a great job on several programmes including Five Live and Channel 5 News.

The Institute of Ideas was out there too courtesy of Claire Fox and David Bowden. Read Dave's insightful article Why did Lord Darzi pull out of an anti-smoking debate? on Politics.co.uk.

I also bumped in to Dave Atherton who was coming out of Broadcasting House just as I was arriving in the morning.

The good news is: Boris seems to have distanced himself from the proposal to ban smoking in parks. According to the Telegraph today: Boris Johnson calls ban on smoking in parks 'bossy'.

Of course the plan will come back again and again. That's how the anti-smoking lobby work. They keep banging on until they get what they want, relentlessly browbeating the opposition (and politicians) into submission or apathy.

All I'll say is this: we made a lot of mistakes when we campaigned against the ban on smoking in enclosed public places a decade ago. We won't make the same mistakes again.

Further reading: Park smoking ban shows how tragically anti-smoking movement lost its way (Ian Dunt).

Wednesday
Oct152014

Smoking in London parks: which way will Boris swing?

London faces a "public health emergency" says the London Health Commission apocalyptically.

Established by Mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2013 and chaired by Lord Darzi, "one of the world's leading surgeons" and a former Labour minister (natch), the LHC has come up with a series of measures to tackle smoking, obesity, exercise, and drinking to make London a "healthier, slimmer, fitter, city".

The most eye-catching proposal is a call for Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and 20,000 acres of parks in the capital to go "smoke free".

Naturally the idea is backed by Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies who says it will stop "role modelling in front of children".

The recent recipient of an honorary knighthood, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also chipped in, calling the plan a "major achievement" (eh?), adding that he is "looking forward to visiting London's smoke free parks and squares".

You can download the full news release – including quotes from Davies, Bloomberg and ASH here.

The notable missing person is of course Boris. So which way will that great libertarian swing?

My guess is Boris will support the plan. After all, this is the man who earlier this year wrote, Banning smoking in cars is bizarre, intrusive – and right (Daily Telegraph).

Truth is, Boris is far from the "libertarian free spirit" he claims to be. One of his first acts as Mayor was to ban alcohol on the Underground, a completely unnecessary restriction given that laws governing anti-social behaviour already existed.

On smoking bans and other issues he flip flops all the time.

Sadly even self-styled maverick politicians like Boris are addicted to regulations. They can't help themselves.

Ironically, banning smoking in parks and squares reminds me of Ken Livingstone's failed attempt to force London's pubs and clubs to go "smoke free" years before MPs voted to ban smoking in all enclosed public places.

Forest helped defeat that proposal (see our submission to the Greater London Authority investigation which ASH has helpfully kept on file) and I hope we can do the same again.

Meanwhile here's Forest's response to the LHC's call to action:

The smokers' group Forest has slammed calls for Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and 20,000 acres of parks in the capital to go smoke free.

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sally Davies, has backed the proposal, by the Mayor's London Health Commission, saying it will stop “role modelling in front of children”

Simon Clark, director of Forest, said: "A ban on smoking in parks and squares would be outrageous. There's no health risk to anyone other than the smoker. If you don't like the smell, walk away.

"Tobacco is a legal product. If the Chief Medical Officer doesn't like people smoking in front of children she should lobby the government to introduce designated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs so adults can smoke inside in comfort.

"The next thing you know we'll be banned from smoking in our own gardens in case a whiff of smoke travels over the fence."

He added: "If Boris Johnson supports this move it will blow to smithereens his easy-going image.

"It will demonstrate he's just like every other politician climbing the greasy pole, happy to micro manage our lives and trample on ordinary people."

PS. The London Health Commission news release was embargoed until 00:01hrs this morning. I did my duty and delayed publishing in order not to break it.

Update (00:24): The BBC News website has the story here (Trafalgar and Parliament squares smoking ban call). There's no opposing comment from Forest (or anyone else) despite the fact we sent them our response this afternoon. I've just spoken to the UK news desk to make that point. Let's see what happens.

Update (00:30): The Daily Mail has the story here – Ban smoking in public parks: England's most senior doctor warns lighting up in public places encourages children to take up the habit. It includes a comment from Forest.

Update (00:46): The BBC News website has updated its report to include a quote from me. Better late than never.

Update (00:56): The Mirror also has a report, with a quote from Forest (Ban smoking in all London parks says Chief Medical Officer):

Simon Clark of smokers' group Forest blasted the proposals as "farcical".

He said: "There's no health risk to anyone other than the smoker. If you don't like the smell, walk away.

"The next thing will be a ban on smoking in our own gardens in case a whiff of smoke travels over the fence."

And now, to bed ...

Tuesday
Oct142014

Hands Off Our Packs: Diary of a political campaign – out now! 

Pleased to report that Hands Off Our Packs: Diary of a political campaign, is published this week.

The 240-page book is a compilation of entries originally published on this blog. It begins with this post on January 16, 2012 (Coloured packs are a threat to kids, says Lib Dem MP) and bar a short postscript concludes with this entry on August 7, 2014 (Over 150,000 petition Government against plain packaging).

In between those entries campaigners – on both sides – endured something of a roller coaster. Here's the blurb:

The tobacco control industry wants to put all tobacco products in standardised packaging. Cigarettes and hand-rolled tobacco would be sold in uniform drab brown packs with graphic health warnings on front and back. Brand names would be printed in a single identical font.

When the consumer group Forest launched its campaign against the policy in February 2012 director Simon Clark anticipated an initiative lasting six or nine months. A small team was assembled and in August 2012, following a 16-week public consultation, the Hands Off Our Packs campaign delivered over 235,000 responses from the public opposing the measure.

In the war of words that followed there were allegations of “cheating” and “petition rigging”, of “government lobbying government”, and worse. “Whitehall sources” suggested plain packaging would be included in the 2013 Queen’s Speech and when it wasn’t the government was accused of a U-turn. As the issue escalated the prime minister was accused of succumbing to the influence of his election strategist Lynton Crosby whose consultancy had previously worked for a tobacco company.

When the Department of Health finally published its long-awaited report on the consultation a huge majority of responses were revealed to be against plain packaging. In total a record 665,989 people had responded with over 427,888 (almost two-thirds) against the policy.

Despite this, and within a few months, a new review was commissioned by government. Published on April 3, 2014, Sir Cyril Chantler’s report received a mixed response. The government however declared it was now “minded” to introduce plain packs after a “final" six-week consultation. This time Forest delivered 53,196 letters to the PM opposing the measure. Copies of those letters plus 97,000 petition responses and an estimated 8,000 emails were also sent to the Department of Health.

While interested parties await the report on the “final” consultation, Hands Off Our Packs: Diary of a political campaign shines a fascinating light on the darker aspects of the campaign to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco – a campaign whose outcome remains uncertain even as this book is published.

A printed edition is available for review by bloggers and other interested parties. (If you'd like to review it email contact@forestonline.org and we'll send you a copy.)

The book will also be available next week as a free download.

Tuesday
Oct142014

Should teachers and health workers be forbidden to smoke completely?

I'm on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this morning:

A new survey found that over 60 per cent of people in the UK believe that employees in the food industry and health service should be completely prohibited from smoking. Over 40 per cent agreed that the emergency services and teachers should also have enforced restrictions on smoking.

Consequently I've been invited to discuss the question: "Should those working in certain professions be forbidden from smoking altogether?"

The poll was commissioned by Nicoccino, an "innovative nicotine alternative containing no tobacco or tars and without the smoke and smell".

Developed in Sweden and described as the "ultimate smokeless alternative", it's a "pure nicotine film that dissolves under your lip".

Anything that increases consumer choice is fine by me. What a pity they choose to promote it by encouraging even greater intolerance of smoking.

Try as they might to adopt a "hipster vibe", when words like "prohibition" and "enforced restrictions" are used to target other products the stench is overwhelming, however "pure" the "nicotine experience".

The same goes for e-cig companies who denigrate smoking in their advertising and marketing.

I understand why they do it – for commercial gain – but all it does is fuel the anti-tobacco, anti-nicotine industry whose representatives are currently discussing the next line of attack at COP6 in Moscow.

Reap what you sow and all that.

See also: Why I hate (some) e-cigarette retailers