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« Why I'm tempted to attend the 2017 E-Cigarette Summit | Main | Morning after the night before »

The 'alt tobacco' lobby and the war on choice

This was the Philip Morris stand at the Tory conference in Manchester last week.

The way it was described to me I was expecting a small house but instead it was just a large and fairly traditional box stand with the words 'Smoke' and 'Free' emblazoned on the side.

Anxious to keep an open mind I picked up a leaflet that began by asking 'How long will the world's leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business?'.

Although I couldn't find an exact answer to this question it was helpful in explaining 'Why Philip Morris International is giving up smoking'.

Smoking is harmful and cigarette smoking causes serious disease and is addictive ... The best option is always not to start smoking or for smokers to quit.

The leaflet quoted Peter Nixon, MD of Philip Morris UK and Ireland ("We strongly support the Government's ambition to create a smoke-free generation.") before concluding:

Philip Morris International has set a bold new course to ensure that smoke-free products replace cigarettes ...

Now, we want to work with politicians, local authorities and businesses to help achieve a smoke-free future.

OK, I've quoted those comments in isolation (I've no argument with the overall case for alternative nicotine products) but you get the picture.

This is not a company that intends to defend the use of combustible products or the interests of those who enjoy smoking and don't want to quit.

Indeed, PMI is so determined to lead the charge towards a Utopian 'smoke-free' future the company is prepared, it seems, to risk alienating the very consumers it hopes to convert to its own heated tobacco and 'e-vapour' devices by openly advocating an anti-smoking agenda.

Good luck with that.

My own view is that it's perfectly possible to promote a new generation of reduced risk products (as other companies are doing) without stamping on traditional tobacco products or punishing existing smokers by supporting further increases in excise duty as PMI has done.

Moreover, while it is crazy to demand that PMI stops selling cigarettes with immediate effect, I do think that as long as the company continues to manufacture and sell combustible cigarettes it has a duty to defend the rights and interests of adults who choose to smoke its products.

Alternative nicotine products were also the focus of several fringe events in Manchester. The Institute of Economic Affairs hosted a discussion entitled 'Vaping: Could Brexit be good for our health?' The Adam Smith Institute chipped in with 'Innovation vs. The Nanny State: How markets are solving the problems government can't'. Last but not least, British American Tobacco hosted the Vype Reception, named after the "UK's leading e-cigarette brand".

Chaired by unapologetic smoker Mark Littlewood, speakers at the IEA Think Tent event were Chris Snowdon (IEA), Bob Blackman MP (chairman, APPG on Smoking and Health), Clive Bates (former director of ASH), and James Hargrave, head of public affairs for the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA).

Despite the distractions of heavy drilling outside the marquee and occasional gusts of wind buffeting the roof, I heard enough from Blackman to conclude that the man is a buffoon. His most ridiculous comment was the statement that smoking is "guaranteed" to kill you. No ifs, no buts. "Guaranteed." Other comments were followed by a self-satisfied smirk.

Bates is also becoming a bit smug (more so than he was) but you can't blame him. After all, when people hang on your every word and treat you like a minor deity it's inevitable, I suppose. (Jealous, moi?)

I didn't go to the ASI event because I had other things to do but I was keen to attend the Vype Reception, not least to see how it had evolved from the previous year.

Last year's event took place in a small window-less room in a soulless conference centre. It felt corporate yet clandestine, an odd mix. This year it was located in a large suite in the main hotel – the same room the Tobacco Manufacturers Association used for a reception in 2010. (The significance didn't escape me.) There were many more guests than last year and it felt like a traditional conference event. Like vaping, the Vype Reception had grown up and come of age. I can only see it getting bigger.

Both the IEA event and the Vype Reception were featured in a PR Week report headlined 'Alt tobacco' lobby lights up Tory conference. I'd never heard the term before but it seems that PMI, UKVIA and the IEA are all categorised as 'alt tobacco'. To this group I would add the ASI, the New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) and even the Freedom Association whose pro-vaping campaign Freedom to Vape has been quietly active for more than a year now.

It shows how times are a-changing because where there were just two categories of lobby group in this field – tobacco and anti-tobacco – now there are three (at least). To complicate matters further there's a fine line between 'tobacco' and 'alt tobacco' and 'alt tobacco' and 'anti-tobacco', not to mention the distinction between anti-tobacco and anti-smoking. 

No-one, I'm sure, would accuse PMI or the NNA of being anti-tobacco. PMI, after all, advocates the use of heated tobacco while the NNA is fighting a court battle to get another tobacco product – snus – legalised. But anti-smoking? That's a different matter.

The jury is out on the NNA (whose reluctance to condemn almost any anti-smoking measure is nevertheless pretty damning) but the evidence against PMI seems unequivocal. If you announce plans to donate $1 billion to an institution called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and work with "politicians, local authorities and businesses to help achieve a smoke-free future", it's hard to conclude that you are anything other than anti-smoking.

At least PMI is transparent about its long-term goal. The 'alt tobacco' campaigners I really don't care for are those who claim to believe in choice but – dig a little deeper – and it's clear their advocacy begins and ends with non-combustible products. Cigarettes? Meh.

Some 'alt tobacco' campaigners are so keen to embrace e-cigarettes as a 'solution' to the smoking 'problem' (their words) I sense they will happily abandon smokers to even more prohibitive regulations if it suits their agenda.

Last week for example I spotted a tweet by an 'alt tobacco' advocate that appeared to suggest that while it's wrong to restrict or ban flavoured e-liguids it's perfectly OK to prohibit flavoured (ie menthol) cigarettes. I'm sorry, if you genuinely value consumer choice and personal responsibility neither policy is right and you should say so.

(I've made this point before but I'll make it again. The true test of a genuine liberal is the ability to defend activities he/she neither likes nor indulges in. Smoking is a litmus test for such people and many are failing the test.)

I've noticed too that 'alt tobacco' lobbyists are increasingly using the language and guesstimates of anti-smoking campaigners to promote their cause. This includes the term 'smoke free' and the number of deaths allegedly caused by smoking and 'passive' smoking and the number of lives 'saved' if every smoker switched to vaping.

I can't think of a government body that is more despised by pro-vaping advocates than the World Health Organisation. Nevertheless, if WHO says a billion lives will be lost to smoking this century, it must be true!

Likewise the same campaigners who regularly criticise or lampoon Public Health England for its pronouncements on alcohol and food currently treat anything PHE says about smoking and vaping as if it's the word of God. To be clear, I don't dispute PHE's claim that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than combustible cigarettes, I just find it funny that many 'alt tobacco' lobbyists promote PHE as the font of all wisdom on smoking and vaping and complete muppets on everything else.

So where does the rise of the 'alt tobacco' lobby leave Forest? Our role, I believe, is to embrace the new without abandoning the old, hence our own fringe event - Eat, Drink, Smoke, Vape - that gave equal billing to smoking and vaping.

I must stress however that while Forest will evolve - happily advocating new nicotine products in the name of choice - we will never abandon the interests of adults who choose to smoke. If that makes us more 'tobacco' than 'alt tobacco', so be it. It's just a label, after all.

The real battle is not between the tobacco, 'alt tobacco' or anti-tobacco lobbies. It's about choice. Quite simply, are you for, or against? 

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Reader Comments (6)

PMI might as well have had "Screw Smokers" emblazoned across its strand. After all, that's what it means.

It has taken our money for decades and now plans to produce a product for smoker haters.

Screw You PMI.

Monday, October 9, 2017 at 11:56 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

You most likely know, but Philip Morris now own who used to be nicolites. They started out producing what the vaping community call 'cigalikes', but now also produce a more sophisticated ecig. JTI now own which was elites. They too were originally cigalikes and 'pens' but they also have now added more sophisticated devices. I was not aware of who BAT owned, but from your article I assume that it is

Monday, October 9, 2017 at 13:04 | Unregistered Commentertimbone

It seems that PMI also own which produce what I term playthings which you see on TV news items, tanks and liquids and immense clouds of vapour

Monday, October 9, 2017 at 13:23 | Unregistered Commentertimbone

How ironic, PMI, which became no.1 cigarette company in the world by selling the image of the rugged Marlboro cowboy is now a pathetic doormat at the feet of anti-smoking fanatics.

Monday, October 9, 2017 at 15:06 | Unregistered CommenterVlad

It looks like PMI has been captured by the antismokers as alt tobacco is a step toward prohibition. Smokers must band together and demand respect for their liberties and the preservation of choice.

Monday, October 9, 2017 at 20:08 | Unregistered CommenterVinny Gracchus

Despite all their publicity, I’m actually not 100% convinced about PMI’s (or indeed any of the major tobacco manufacturers’) stated intentions to move away from conventional cigarettes. If they really wanted smokers to give their HNB devices a go, then their promised “UK rollout” would have targeted the usual outlets where people buy their conventional cigarettes, as the e-cigarette manufacturers do. Pretty much all the places where I buy my regular cigs have extensive e-cigarette displays selling some of the simpler devices and e-liquid etc, but there’s not a single HNB device or any HNB supplies in sight. A “rollout” which involves just three shops in London is hardly “countrywide” (not much use to anyone who lives in, say, Manchester, is it? Who wants to be buying their smoking/vaping/HNB supplies by mail order or on Amazon every week?) and doesn’t indicate much genuine confidence that these much-boasted-of products will overtake their conventional cigarette sales any time soon. I think all this “look at us – aren’t we socially responsible” stuff is, more than anything, designed to get the wretched anti-smokers off their backs. If they make some small inroads into the e-cigarette market into the bargain, well, that’s fine too – but it’s of secondary importance. Otherwise, they’d be making a lot more effort to bring HNB to the attention of a whole lot more smokers than they are doing. Most of the smokers I know are all aware of e-cigs, but mention “HNB” to them and they haven’t a clue what you’re talking about!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 2:14 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

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