Audrey Silk: voice of the smoker USA
Wednesday, September 6, 2017 at 9:43
Simon Clark

This time next week I shall be in New York.

Having waited twelve years to return to the city, it will be my second visit in four weeks.

The InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel (to give it its full title) is the venue for the 2017 Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) and I'm taking part in one of the sessions: 'Risk and Regulation: The Impact of Excessive Legislation on Consumer Behaviour'.

One of my regular complaints about tobacco and nicotine-related conferences is the fact that consumers – current smokers especially – are frequently marginalised or excluded from the debate.

Instead of being part of the conversation they are lectured or, worse, patronised. Smokers (and even vapers) are victims of an addiction over which they have no control. They need our help!

Today the few consumers who are invited to speak tend to be ex-smoking vapers but it's rare for them to be given a keynote address. Most of those slots are reserved for 'public health' professionals and long-standing anti-tobacco campaigners.

The chances of someone who likes smoking and doesn't want to quit being asked to speak are virtually nil because that's not what the organisers (or delegates) want to hear.

The same goes for researchers who ask pertinent questions such as "Why don't more smokers switch to using e-cigarettes?" and get the awkward response, "Because I enjoy smoking!"

Again, it's not what 'public health' (or even the tobacco industry) wants to hear.

In other words, most tobacco-related conferences are not only blind to the fact that many smokers don't want to quit, they stubbornly ignore the reality that millions of smokers don't find alternative nicotine products very attractive.

Surely this is worth discussing? Apparently not. Consumers, it seems, are only worth engaging with if they have stopped smoking or have bought into the bogus notion that if every smoker switched to vaping a billion lives will be saved and the 'most harmful epidemic (sic) known to man' will be eradicated forever.

Even GTNF, an industry-led conference that began in 2008 as the Global Tobacco Network Forum, has become something of a platform for smoking cessation advocates.

Don't get me wrong. I've no problem with GTNF focusing on harm reduction and emerging products – it's a natural evolution for a tobacco industry event – but as long as millions of adults enjoy smoking, know the risks and don't want to quit, their interests and concerns should be addressed as well.

They should also be represented on panels and other platforms.

To be fair, the voice of the confirmed smoker can still be heard at GTNF (unlike other conferences) but it's increasingly peripheral.

Which leads me to GTNF 2017. After the usual lobbying on my part I was askd to put together a panel to discuss consumer issues and since we were going to be in New York the first person I thought of was Audrey Silk.

If you've never heard of her, here's a quick resume, courtesy of her bio:

Audrey is the founder of the grassroots smokers’ rights group Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH). A 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department, she retired in 2004. In 2005, she ran for New York City mayor at the invitation of the Libertarian Party.

Based in New York City and originally formed in 2000 to protect and advance the interests of the city and state residents who choose to smoke, CLASH ultimately became active nationally.

In addition to numerous appearances on major cable news networks such as CNN and Fox News, Audrey has been profiled in the New York Times and various documentaries.

Aside from participating at public hearings and meeting with lawmakers, CLASH has launched several court battles challenging the legality of certain anti-smoking laws in New York, including the ban on the use of e-cigarettes.

Her latest CLASH-led campaign, 'Smoking is Normal', is designed to reassure adults who choose to smoke, and to impress on society that smokers are not the villains or victims that public health advocates portray them to be.

The New York Times profile is, I think, a reference to a 2011 article about her homegrown tobacco:

Ms. Silk’s backyard is home to raspberry and rose bushes, geraniums, impatiens and 100 tobacco plants in gardening buckets near her wooden deck. Inside her house, around the corner from Flatbush Avenue, in Marine Park, she has to be careful stepping into her basement - one wrong move could ruin her cigarettes. Dozens of tobacco leaves hang there, drying on wires she has strung across the room, where they turn a crisp light brown as they age above a stack of her old Springsteen records.

Audrey calls her homegrown tobacco 'Screw You Bloomberg'. This 2012 video explains why.

According to another profile, published by the online magazine Hope & Fears in 2015:

Until her 30s, Silk was not particularly political. "I didn't know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican," she told me. Her political consciousness awoke in the late '90s, with the dawning awareness that smoking - long linked to lung cancer but still a common-enough pedestrian pastime - was coming under attack. When she learned that the New York City council was holding a hearing on smoking bans she went to speak her mind. "They didn't give two shits what Jane Public thinks," she told me. And so Jane Public, after ordering a letterhead, became, against her herd-loathing instincts, CLASH.

I'm looking forward to seeing her because when I visited New York in 2005 we arranged to meet at her house in Brooklyn but the meeting never took place. Here's what happened.

It was a blisteringly hot day. I was wandering around and it took me ages to get a taxi. Eventually, after hanging about on a street corner close to Macy's, the famous Manhattan department store, a taxi finally stopped and I hopped in.

I gave the driver Audrey's address but overestimated his ability. Thirty minutes after we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge it dawned on me he had no idea where we were, or where we were going, and I had no idea either.

He was from Armenia, I think. He spoke very little English. He rang someone – his brother, perhaps – to help with directions. Meanwhile he kept on driving, looking for landmarks.

In desperation I tried calling Audrey (this was pre-smart phones) but my battered old Nokia wouldn't connect to her number. Eventually, with the meter ticking and any hope of finding her house long gone, I instructed my hapless driver to return to Manhattan.

The afternoon wasn't entirely wasted because on the return journey I asked him to drop me off at one of the handful of cigar bars in Manhattan.

The bar was air-conditioned but it wasn't plush. In fact it was quite scruffy and differed from an ordinary bar in just one respect – you could smoke a cigar indoors without the threat of prosecution.

Apart from two other customers and the barman it was also completely empty.

When I returned to my hotel later that evening I sent Audrey an apologetic email, explaining what had happened, but her terse response suggested she wasn't impressed and I've felt guilty about it ever since.

Twelve years on I will do my best to make amends.

Article originally appeared on Simon Clark (http://taking-liberties.squarespace.com/).
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