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« Bad day for advocates of choice | Main | Scotland's "barmy bid" to wean prisoners off cigarettes »

Stubborn bastards

I attended a private event in London last night called 'How long until smoking is history?'

I say 'private' because I don't think it was widely publicised. Nevertheless there were a lot of familiar faces present, many of whom (I'm guessing) had received a personal invitation.

Organised by the New Statesman 'in association with Philip Morris International', it was described thus:

Last year, the Government published its new Tobacco Control Plan for England that outlines a range of proposals to achieve a ‘smoke-free generation’.

More recently, Public Health England outlined a series of ambitious ideas to encourage smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives including encouraging hospitals to sell e-cigarettes and converting smoking shelters to vaping shelters.

Philip Morris International has committed itself to a smoke-free future and commissioned a report from Frontier Economics, ‘Towards a Smoke-free England’, to help understand the potential timescales for England to become smoke-free.

This event will discuss when, based on current trends, England may become smoke-free, and how this might be achieved sooner.

When I read that my heart did sink a little and I vowed to go if only to invoke the elephant in the room – the fact that many people enjoy smoking and don't want to quit or switch to vaping.

As it happens I didn't need to say anything because two of the three panellists covered that ground, to a greater or lesser extent, and I didn't feel there was much more to add.

Chaired by health journalist Anna Hodgekiss, the speakers were 'GP and smoking cessation expert' Dr Roger Henderson; Sarah Jakes, chairman of the New Nicotine Alliance; and Mark Littlewood, director general, Institute of Economic Affairs.

Dr Henderson was bullishly anti-smoking and quite full of himself. He was overly dramatic about the health risks of smoking, making frequent references to smokers having to choose between smoking or losing their legs. If I was a smoker I'd dread having someone like him as my GP.

I don't always see eye to eye with Sarah Jakes (or the New Nicotine Alliance which she chairs) but credit where credit's due. A former smoker, she's not anti-smoking and she does stand up for choice. She grasps why many smokers are not yet prepared to switch to vaping. And she understands that punishing smokers in order to force them to switch or quit is not the answer.

Mark Littlewood made some telling points in his usual entertaining way. Describing himself as a "stubborn bastard" who enjoys smoking and is too lazy to quit completely, he began by mocking the definition of a 'smoke-free' country.

"If five percent prevalence is the measure of smoke-free," he declared, "I am pleased to announce that Britain is heroin-free."

Dismissing the idea that smoking rates will fall to zero or even one percent in the foreseeable future, he warned against setting targets.

To sum up, it was a well-organised, well-attended event with three good speakers, four if you include Nick Fitzpatrick of Frontiers Economics who kicked things off with a short presentation that highlighted estimated smoking rates between now and 2050 when some people predict it will be zero.

Henderson's anti-smoking rhetoric wasn't to my taste but he was forthright and never boring. His views were also balanced by his fellow panellists, neither of whom was anti-smoking and both offered some welcome nuance.

So credit (on this occasion) to PMI. Credit too to the New Statesman for putting aside a long-held distaste of tobacco companies to organise the event. (I can't imagine what persuaded them!)

If I took one thing from the evening it's this. Forget forecasts and targets. The answer to the question 'How long until smoking is history?' is simple: no-one knows.

Everything we hear and read is speculation based on trends that, as Mark Littlewood noted, will be hard if not impossible to maintain as the smoking rate edges towards single figures and confirmed smokers (aka Mark's "stubborn bastards") dig their heels in and continue to smoke.

One thing's for sure. Even if the smoking rate does fall to five per cent of the adult population, that still represents two million smokers in the UK alone.

Smoke-free Britain? You're 'aving a laugh.

Postscript: I couldn't help notice that every time the dangers of smoking were emphasised by Roger Henderson a young guy in front of me would nod his head several times in agreement.

Later, during the Q&As, his mate – who was sitting next to him – asked how many young people smoke in comparison to the elderly.

When informed (incorrectly as it happens) that the highest percentage of smokers is in the 18-24 age group (it's actually more common among those aged 25-34, according to the latest ONS figures), he muttered, "Shocking."

What a prig, I thought.

Imagine my surprise then when, as I was leaving, I saw the pair of them outside, in the street ... smoking.

Update: I've told this story before but, many years ago, I took part in a debate about smoking bans hosted by the English-Speaking Union.

I was partnered by the late Lord Harris, chairman of Forest and a distinguished speaker in the House of Lords and elsewhere.

Our opponents – who were speaking in favour of smoking bans – were two young world championship winning debaters. They were brilliant and won the debate hands down.

Afterwards, to add insult to injury, they told us they were both smokers.

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Reader Comments (2)

Self hating smokers have always been our own worst enemy.

To answer the question about when we will have a "smoke free" world it will be when they make smoking illegal and criminalise consumers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 13:57 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse


First off, good to see you (albeit briefly) again last night. I'm glad you decided to pop along to the event.

I personally found Henderson's comments unusually pragmatic - unless my memory fails me - he didn't seem to be one of the usual pushy GP's about cessation (do correct me if I'm wrong!).

As I've just written over on my own post on last night, I don't believe the UK or the world will ever truly be smoke-free, and frankly, nor should it be. Smoking is and always has been normal.

Maybe one day I'll eat my own words, dependant on whether or not the market can produce alternatives that many (not necessarily all) want in lieu of combustible tobacco and, of course, if public health and tobacco control butt out.

But I doubt it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 16:32 | Unregistered CommenterPaul B

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