Groundhog day 
Saturday, April 15, 2017 at 9:59
Simon Clark

Groundhog day: a situation in which a series of unwelcome or tedious events appear to be recurring in exactly the same way.

There has been conjecture that the Government's new Tobacco Control Plan has been delayed because it's not a priority.

I'm sure that's true. I can think of lots of things – not just Brexit – that are far more important (don't we have enough tobacco control measures already?), and the public seems to agree.

Over the last two years polls conducted by Populus for Forest have consistently shown that tackling smoking is usually the lowest in a list of priorities for national and local government, below even obesity and alcohol issues.

The public isn't stupid. They know that smoking rates in Britain are the lowest they've ever been since the introduction of mass-produced cigarettes.

They know too that in the last decade successive governments have passed a series of laws from the smoking ban to plain packaging via the ban on the display of tobacco in shops and the general feeling, I believe, is "Enough's enough."

See Enough Is Enough: Attitudes to UK Smoking Policies (Forest).

Unfortunately when it comes to tobacco control the Department of Health tends to be a law unto itself – unelected mandarins calling the shots, working hand in hand with the likes of ASH, 'advising' (ie lobbying) health ministers on the 'next logical steps'.

So it's good to see the Government taking its time (although sod's law dictates that as soon as I've published this I'll get a call saying there will be an announcement early next week!).

It was encouraging too to read yesterday a comment from the minister for local government in response to the 'revelation' that some Labour councils have a "secret plan" to ban smoking in "alfresco dining areas" including beer gardens.

According to the Telegraph:

The proposals to extend the ban to outdoor areas have been included in a list of demands by councils and health authorities in London which has been supported by Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London.

However the Government has rejected the plans and condemned "labour's municipal killjoys" for making the proposal.

Marcus Jones, a minister for local government, said: “We already knew that Labour councils charge higher council taxes and levy more red tape.

"Now Labour’s municipal killjoys have been caught with a smoking gun, trying to ban adults enjoying their local pub garden. If implemented, these ill-founded proposals would lead to massive pub closures.

"Conservatives in Government will be vetoing these Labour Party plans. Ahead of May’s local elections, local voters have a right to know the bad and mad ideas that are being peddled by Labour councillors."

While this is good news let's not get carried away. To the best of my knowledge there is nothing to stop any local council introducing a by-law that would ban smoking in outdoor areas.

In other words, we have to remain extremely vigilant. We're still in the early phase of what promises to be a long war on smoking in outdoor areas, public and private.

In fact the whole situation feels extremely familiar, a note for note re-run of the long-running 'debate' about smoking in indoor public places, and these are the initial skirmishes.

Yesterday, for example, I did a couple of interviews for BBC Radio London and Five Live. In the course of those interviews it was suggested a good compromise would be smoking and non-smoking areas in beer gardens and 'alfresco dining areas'.

Years before the smoking ban was introduced pubs and particularly restaurants introduced smoking and non-smoking areas.

If I remember this was supported by ASH who insisted their only goal was more choice (ie 'smoke free' zones) for non-smokers.

No-one could really object to this (compromise is good, right?) but of course there were complaints from anti-smokers (who are never satisfied) that smoke drifted from the smoking to the non-smoking area.

Hence the proposal for separate smoking rooms but even that wasn't good enough because there were complaints that whenever the door to the smoking room was opened smoke – or the smell of smoke – would drift out into the non-smoking area.

The 'killer' argument was of course "passive smoking kills". Despite extremely dubious evidence we lost that battle because "passive smoking kills" was a slogan that was almost impossible to respond to in an equally succinct manner.

Have you tried explaining epidemiology and the risk ratios concerning passive smoking in a soundbite? It can't be done.

Well, I got an enormous sense of deja vu last night because I found myself going head-to-head with arguably the world's leading anti-smoking campaigner, Dr Stanton Glantz, who insisted, on Five Live, that smoking outside presented a serious threat to the health of non-smokers.

Presenter Stephen Nolan sounded sceptical and I declared the claim to be "nonsense" but Glantz was his usual bolshie self and became quite aggressive when I had the temerity to interrupt.

It was a slightly uncomfortable interview because I was standing, shivering, in the dark outside the Milton Keynes Theatre where I had gone to see Danny Baker's one man show, From Cradle to Stage.

The show began at 7.30 and finished – almost four hours later – at 11.10. I was booked to appear on Five Live at 10.45 so I had to slip out early.

Truth is, it wasn't my finest interview (if there is such a thing) because I do find Glantz a little intimidating and the argument became quite heated (or "passionate", as Nolan put it).

Anyway, despite the positive noises emanating from government, it all feels strangely familiar.

Update: During the Five Live 'debate' with Glantz I insisted repeatedly that it was "nonsense" to suggest smoking outside is a threat to non-smokers.

This morning I read this by Dr Max Pemberton in the Daily Mail:

As a doctor, you might expect me to support the call to extend the smoking ban to outside spaces. Actually, I think the Government was right to reject the plans as they did this week.

As a former smoker, I know that the more you’re told not to do it, the more there’s a tendency to dig your heels in. Brow-beating people into quitting rarely works.

There’s no doubt the smoking ban has brought about great benefits and, along with e-cigarettes, has gently nudged lots of people to quit.

But as a libertarian, I think there has to be compelling evidence before we ban things. It might not be pleasant to get a whiff of smoke as you walk past someone in the street, but it’s not going to kill you.

Time and again, public health officials, often in cahoots with busy-body councils, try to impose their will on people when there is flimsy evidence of any real benefit, riding roughshod over people’s basic right to choose how to live their lives.

Just because people make choices the experts don’t agree with doesn’t mean they should have those choices taken away.

To me, the attitude of public health officials embodies everything I dislike about doctors — the patronising, ‘we know best’ attitude of yesteryear that the medical profession has tried so hard to shake off.

Let people smoke outside if they want to. It’s their life and the Government has no place telling someone what to do if it doesn’t affect anyone else.

It’s just the nanny state interfering — which I like even less than smoking.

Glantz or Pemberton? I know who I believe. Click here.

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