I was going to begin 2014 with a bright 'n' breezy "Happy New Year!".
But then I read this post by Clive Bates: Where is the humility? Where is the empathy?.
Clive's New Year message begins:
With the approach of 2014 and New Year resolutions under negotiation, my thoughts and good wishes turn to all those smokers out there who would like to stop smoking – as in stop inhaling burning particles of organic matter and hot toxic gases deep into the lungs. I hope they give vaping a try.
An e-cig is working well for my brother and I’m really glad about that – he’s smoked for about 30 years and has never intended to stop, but this has all but ended his smoking over the last nine months. Not good enough for MHRA, Brussels, WHO and CR-UK of course, but he’s pleased, and so am I. It reminds me that there are great stories about e-cigs, about personal triumphs, lives transformed and people getting back in control.
But there is a striking contrast between the often moving, thrilling and visceral human stories told by vapers and the attitude and language of the bossy bureaucrats and fake experts in public health who claim to know better. I ask where is the humility? Where is the empathy?
He then highlights some personal testimonies from vapers who have quit (or are trying to quit) smoking. "I love these stories," he writes.
"If you work in public health," he adds, "and you are working against e-cigarettes, I hope you feel ashamed and will reflect on how you could do a better job in 2014."
Powerful stuff, and Clive is correct to berate public health workers for their lack of "humanity" and "understanding" of e-cigarettes and those who want to quit smoking tobacco.
But what about smokers who don't want to quit, or those whose lives have been changed, sometimes ruthlessly and often for the worse, by smoking bans and other anti-tobacco measures designed to "denormalise" their habit and stigmatise them personally.
Don't they deserve empathy too?
In common with many e-cig campaigners, Clive loves the testimonies of vapers who quit smoking, but where is the "humility" to accept that a great many people enjoy smoking, have no wish to quit, and should be allowed to smoke in comfort, without harassment, in some enclosed public places?
Here are some of their testimonies:
”I'm 43 and perform in a semi-pro pub-duo, singing and playing Irish standards etc. As such, I am someone who is ‘protected’ by the smoking ban. Well, it's certainly protecting me against earning a living from music and it has utterly RUINED the pub-going experience, not just in the winter but, for landlocked city pubs, at any time. No smoking inside, no drinking outside. Result: near-empty, atmosphere-free pubs. Personally, I feel pretty unwelcome in any public space, so I go out much less. I don't travel by train any more. Booking hotel rooms has also become fraught, as I refuse to stay anywhere that won't accommodate my preference.”
”I am a housewife. I used to go into town for a coffee with friends once a week. I no longer do that since the ban was introduced. I used to play bingo once a week but I refuse to have to go outside to have a cigarette, so I don’t go any more.”
“As a mental health sufferer this ban has been devastating. One of the most important things for people like me is getting out and not stagnating at home, however, with this vicious ban there is nowhere for us to go out to and relax. Ergo, we don't go! By not going out we are not meeting new people, who possibly have the same or similar problems and with whom discussion can be very beneficial to both sides. Effectively we feel isolated, have an increased feeling of unworthiness, and an even blacker outlook on the future."
“I am currently practising as a mental health social worker. Before that I was a social scientist and a professional musician. The ban has hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest – those in rural areas with few pubs losing what venues they could socialise in: landlocked locals, estate pubs, working men’s clubs, bingo halls, shisha bars. All these venues supplied a crucial social and cultural function. They created and sustained communities where people from all backgrounds met and socialised."
“I am 67 years old and have been allowed to smoke in a pub or club for nearly fifty years. Since retirement a pub and club has been the centre of my social life and now I only go to a pub once a week, just to stay in contact with friends. I feel that my social life has been taken away from me and feel that the smoking ban is discrimination against the elderly, because they have been stopped from doing something that they have legally been allowed to do for nearly all their lives.”
You can read more testimonies here: Social Impact of Smoking Ban. Most were posted on this blog.
Clive talks of "bossy bureaucrats and fake experts in public health" oblivious, it seems, to the fact that it was the same "bossy bureaucrats" and "fake experts" who campaigned for the smoking ban by spreading unwarranted fears about the impact of 'passive smoking' on people's health.
Unfortunately public health campaigners succeeded with their scaremongering about 'secondhand smoke' so it's hardly surprising that some are adopting the same intolerant, risk averse approach to e-cigarettes.
Don't get me wrong. I like Clive, always have, even when he was director of ASH. When he left we sent him flowers as a genuine, albeit light-hearted, mark of respect.
However his failure to acknowledge the rights of those who don't want to quit smoking is typical of Tobacco Control.
The only politician/public health campaigner I have heard express genuine empathy for all smokers in the last decade is former Labour health secretary John Reid.
Reid was a former 60-a-day man who represented one of the poorest constituencies in the country.
According to him, a cigarette was one of the few pleasures a young, single mother living on a sink estate could look forward to.
The public health lobby went berserk, even though it was probably true.
Reid also disputed the claim that 70 per cent of smokers want to quit. In his estimation, I once heard him say, it was probably around 30 per cent.
Even if the 70 per cent figure is true, it still leaves 30 per cent (approximately three million people in the UK) who don't want to quit.
Do they not deserve our support, our understanding? Tobacco is a legal product, after all.
I have said this before and I'll say it again. Forest supports consumer choice. We therefore welcome and embrace all nicotine delivery systems including e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products such as snus.
What we don't accept is the lack of empathy for those who don't want to quit, or the bullying and discriminatory nature of many of today's anti-tobacco policies.
Over the past decade we have witnessed a disturbing trend - the deliberate denormalisation of a legal product and the systematic vilification of its users.
Clive Bates, for all his good intentions with regard to e-cigarettes, seems happy to endorse that policy. (I've never heard him criticise it.)
A few weeks ago, at the Global Tobacco Network Forum in Cape Town, I asked him a question while we were having a drink.
(I'm sorry if I'm betraying a confidence but I assume he stands by his answer and won't object to it being made public.)
"Clive," I said, "if you had still been director of ASH in 2004, would you have campaigned for a comprehensive smoking ban?"
To his credit he didn't duck the question.
"Yes," he replied.
The irony is, while Clive rightly condemns the hyper-regulation of e-cigarettes, he ignores the fact that it's a direct consequence of the excessive anti-tobacco policies he supports.
After all, having banned smoking in all enclosed public places, it's not difficult to extend that ban to e-cigarettes, however absurd that policy may be.
Reap what you sow and all that.
Support for a comprehensive smoking ban demonstrates not only a disturbing lack of empathy for those who enjoy smoking tobacco, it also makes a mockery of market forces which e-cig campaigners - including Clive - often cite as a reason the state should butt out from over-regulating e-cigs.
(How often have we heard that excessive regulation will kill invention and the natural development of this fledging industry?)
Ultimately, and for all his talents, Clive is no different to most public health campaigners. He may have empathy (eloquently expressed) for smokers who want to quit but what about those who enjoy smoking and don't want to stop?
Hopefully he will prove me wrong in 2014 and demonstrate the sort of understanding and, dare I say it, humility he accuses other public health campaigners of lacking.
PS. This morning via Twitter Clive called for a "credible science review of [the] EU position on e-cigs".
He has my full support.
But will he support a "credible review" of the UK government position on smoking in public places (including the evidence on secondhand smoke)?
I don't think that's unreasonable.
Update: BBC News is reporting 'MP Sarah Wollaston in e-cigs row with health team'.
In response Forest has tweeted:
@drwollastonmp Welcome your position on ecigs. Would also welcome some empathy for smokers who don't want to quit [followed by a link to this post]
If you are on Twitter and following @Forest_Smoking please retweet.
Sarah Wollaston, for those who don't know, is an outspoken advocate of tobacco control including plain packaging.