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Regrets? I have one

I was reminded this morning of something that happened on the Internet TV station 18 Doughty Street twelve years ago.

For those who don’t know, 18 Doughty Street was a brave but short-lived enterprise that was possibly ahead of its time.

From 7.00pm to midnight, five days a week, the station would broadcast via the Internet a series of mostly studio-based news and discussion programmes on the issues of the day.

Iain Dale, now on LBC, was one of the main presenters, and I was invited on his programme four or five times.

It was quite informal and I remember on one occasion being asked to stay on and take part in the following programme, a review of the next day’s newspapers.

The biggest problem for me was that guests were often booked weeks in advance when it was impossible to predict the news, so you could often find yourself being asked to talk about subjects you knew nothing about. (Or was that just me?)

Iain was very good at creating a relaxed, informal atmosphere and one evening I was so chilled I read out a passage from a blog post by Dizzy Thinks that jokingly referred to the then transport minister Stephen Ladyman as ‘Stephen Ladyboy’.

Truth is, I was oblivious to the deliberate error until Iain started to corpse. At that point I realised what I had said and I too began to giggle.

For the next minute or so we both struggled to suppress our laughter. When Iain stopped, I would set him off again, and vice versa. In terms of our reaction, the only thing I can compare it to is the famous ‘leg over’ moment on Test Match Special.

Sadly the clip (which Iain and Dizzy both posted on their blogs at the time) has long been unavailable. When 18 Doughty Street closed down just about everything went offline.

It’s one of my greatest regrets because if there’s one clip I’d like friends and family to see at my funeral (or the party afterwards) it’s this.


Foreword to Nicotine Wars

Rob Lyons, author of the new Forest report, ‘Nicotine Wars: The Fight for Choice’, has written a related piece for Spiked.

Taking aim at cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris whose executives say there is “no reason” to keep smoking cigarettes, Rob writes:

The tone of PMI’s campaign is particularly instructive. It is saying that smokers are wrong, that they have no good reasons to do what they do. Their reasons for smoking are incomprehensible to the great and good, whether it is corporate executives, public-health campaigners, government officials, chattering-class commentators or politicians. The nicotine wars are, in part, a branch of the wider culture wars between the new elites and the great unwashed. We can’t be understood, we can only be controlled, for our own good.

It’s an excellent piece well worth reading. Click here.

Meanwhile, here’s the foreword I wrote for ‘Nicotine Wars’.

ACCORDING to Peter Nixon, managing director of Philip Morris UK, “There is no reason why people should smoke anymore.” This comment – inflammatory to many smokers – is just the latest in a series of statements issued by the tobacco giant over the past three years.

Others include the headline-grabbing claim that the company wants to stop selling cigarettes in the UK by 2030. Another was the announcement, in September 2017, that Philip Morris International will donate one billion dollars to a new organisation, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, over twelve years.

If smokers won’t quit, the company wants consumers to switch to products such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco. I don’t doubt the company’s commitment to tobacco risk reduction – an honourable cause that Forest fully supports – but abandoning long-standing customers who enjoy smoking and don’t want to stop is questionable and quite insulting compared to the more liberal strategy of ‘extending choice’ to consumers.

There is a good reason why millions of adults continue to smoke and it is not because they are all addicted to nicotine. Research shows that it’s because a great many smokers enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit or switch. They know the health risks but the pleasure is such that they choose to continue smoking.

Public Health England and Action on Smoking and Health also advocate vaping in preference to smoking on the not unreasonable grounds that, on current evidence, vaping is a significantly safer alternative. It is increasingly clear however that the long-term goal of many public health campaigners is not a ‘smoke free’ world but a nicotine free world. Vaping, in their mind, is merely a step towards that joyless, puritanical target.

Meanwhile their immediate aim is a society in which smoking is not just ‘out of sight and out of mind’ but completely ‘eradicated’ from existence. To achieve that ambition they will support or promote almost any policy – smoking bans, punitive taxation, standardised packaging, ‘legally-binding’ smoking cessation targets – in order to ‘help’ smokers quit.

Sadly it is not just governments, public health campaigners, the World Health Organisation and Philip Morris whose goal is a ‘smoke-free’ world. Many vaping activists are also committed to a future in which two billion smokers have quit or switched to e-cigarettes. A billion lives will be saved and we’ll all live happily ever after, or so we are told. What is clear is that relatively few advocates of vaping are genuine champions of choice.

And this is where Forest comes in. As the name, Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco, suggests, our primary aim is to defend the interests of adults who enjoy smoking tobacco. In practice however we don’t discriminate between different nicotine products nor do we discriminate between smokers and vapers, many of whom are dual users.

When we’re asked to defend vaping, or criticise regulations designed to restrict unreasonably the sale and use of e-cigarettes, we speak out. Our message is clear: choice and personal responsibility are paramount. As long as you don’t harm others, your lifestyle – including your choice of nicotine product – is nobody’s business but your own.

As a lifelong non-smoker I don’t care if you smoke, vape, use snus (an oral form of tobacco currently prohibited in the UK) or do none of these things. That’s your choice and I’ll ‘die in a ditch’, to coin a phrase, to defend it. Unfortunately many vapers seem to have a limited grasp of what choice actually means. Siding with tobacco control against smoking has become commonplace when smokers and vapers should be fighting side by side.

Some vapers are even opposed to heated tobacco, a product they apparently see as a threat to e-cigarettes. Personally I’m delighted that, as well as e-cigarettes, tobacco companies are developing reduced risk products that appeal to smokers who don’t want to give up tobacco. Time will tell but I think there’s room for both devices, and other products yet to be invented.

The reality is, e-cigarettes are not universally popular with smokers. Research commissioned by Forest in 2016 and conducted by the Centre for Substance Use Research (CSUR) surveyed over 600 committed smokers and found that, although many had tried vaping, they still preferred to smoke because smoking gave them greater pleasure.

The crucial thing is to offer smokers a choice of traditional tobacco products and reduced risk devices, inform and update them with the latest evidence about the risks and benefits, and empower them to make their own informed choices. In short, let the people – not politicians or over-zealous public health campaigners – decide. Most important, respect their choice, even if you disagree with it.

Finally, thanks to Rob Lyons for writing this booklet about the choices currently available to consumers of nicotine in the UK, and for reasserting the values for which Forest has spent 40 years campaigning – freedom of choice and personal responsibility.

Nicotine Wars: The Fight for Choice’ by Rob Lyons can be downloaded here.


Forest Ireland defends vaping on Ireland AM

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


Nicotine Wars: The fight for choice

Last night’s Eat, Drink, Smoke, Vape event in Manchester went pretty well, I think.

In between the eating, drinking, smoking and vaping I managed to squeeze in a short speech to mark the publication of ‘Nicotine Wars: The Fight for Choice’.

I’ll write more about Rob Lyons’ report later, but here’s what I had to say last night:

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us here tonight.

As some of you know, Forest was founded 40 years ago. I need hardly remind you of the significance of 1979 because, as well as being the year that Forest was set up by Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, a former Battle of Britain fighter pilot, it was also the year that Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister.

[Loud cheers!]

Here are some other notable events in 1979:

  • Former Liberal Party leader and MP Jeremy Thorpe went on trial at the Old Bailey charged with attempted murder.
  • The first direct elections to the European Parliament took place. In Britain the turnout was a whopping 32%.
  • The new Conservative government's first budget saw chancellor Geoffrey Howe cut the standard tax rate by 3p and slash the top rate from 83% to 60%.
  • The government also announced £4 billion pounds worth of public spending cuts.
  • Last but not least, smoking was banned in main post offices throughout the country.

Anyway, for the last 40 years Forest has defended the rights of adults who wish to smoke knowing full well the health risks associated with smoking.

Today however the landscape has changed. Over the last decade a range of reduced risk products - notably e-cigarettes and, more recently, heated tobacco - has emerged.

Today there are approx 7.5m smokers in the UK, and 3.6m vapers, a little under half of whom still smoke. We support and defend their choice, whether it’s to smoke or vape.

We also embrace all reduced risk products.

From the beginning, Forest has never been ‘pro-smoking’. Our mission is to promote choice and personal responsibility and that will never change.

Tonight, as part of that ongoing campaign, we are launching our latest publication. It’s called Nicotine Wars: The Fight for Choice, and it explores the changing face of nicotine consumption in the 21st century as an increasing number of smokers transition from combustible tobacco to reduced risk products.

The author, Rob Lyons, is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a columnist for the online magazine Spiked.

Rob can’t be here tonight so let me read a few words from my Foreword:

As the name, Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco, suggests, our primary aim is to defend the interests of adults who enjoy smoking tobacco. In practice however we don’t discriminate between different nicotine products nor do we discriminate between smokers and vapers, many of whom are dual users.

When we’re asked to defend vaping, or criticise regulations designed to restrict unreasonably the sale and use of e-cigarettes, we speak out. Our message is clear: choice and personal responsibility are paramount. As long as you don’t harm others, your lifestyle – including your choice of nicotine product – is nobody’s business but your own.

The crucial thing is to offer smokers a choice of traditional tobacco products and reduced risk devices, inform and update them with the latest evidence about the risks and benefits, and empower them to make their own informed choices. In short, let the people – not politicians or over-zealous public health campaigners – decide. Most important, respect their choice, even if you don’t approve of that choice.

Ladies and gentleman, please take a copy of the booklet with you. Alternatively, you can download a copy from the Forest website.

Enjoy the rest of the evening. Thank you for coming, and please continue to support the fight for choice.

Photo, courtesy Daniel Mcilhiney, taken last night


Tonight ...


Welcome to our new arrival 

Nicotine Wars: The Fight for Choice by Rob Lyons is published today.

Rob is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a columnist for the online magazine Spiked where he writes about a range of issues, including smoking.

Hard copies will be available to guests at our Eat, Drink, Smoke, Vape drinks party at the Conservative conference in Manchester this evening.

Thereafter you will be able to download a copy online. I’ll post a link here tomorrow.


I’m with Carl - advocates of the right to vape must join the larger fight

American writer and tobacco risk reduction expert Carl Phillips posted an interesting thread on Twitter at the weekend.

It concluded with him urging advocates of the right to vape to join what he called the ‘larger fight’ to erode ‘the credibility of the myth-creating [tobacco control] machine’.

But more on that later.

I have long argued that vaping advocates are making a mistake if they focus almost exclusively on health in support of e-cigarettes.

The significantly reduced risk provided by e-cigarettes is a powerful argument in their favour, but the problem, as I have said before, is that it only takes one major health scare - genuine or otherwise - to have politicians and public health officials demanding immediate action to curtail their use.

The US vape scare is a classic example. It doesn’t matter how unjust (or plain wrong) the case is against legal vaping products, those opposed to any form of recreational nicotine have been able to create a general sense of panic around e-cigarettes.

And not just in America. India recently announced a ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of e-cigarettes.

In Ireland, as I mentioned on Saturday, a former minister of health has called for a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes, the president of the University of Limerick has urged the government to ban vaping across all Irish educational institutions, and a leading heart consultant has called for a complete ban on vaping, saying, “It’s more dangerous than smoking and booze combined.”

Even closer to home, it’s been reported that ‘The Scottish Government could introduce a ban on advertising for e-cigarettes and vaping products. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a consultation on the move would take place in the “coming months”.’

This is happening despite the fact that there is no evidence of harm caused by vaping regulated e-cigarettes or liquids. Consider the reaction therefore if genuine evidence were to emerge. Imagine, for example, that a study into long-term use of e-cigarettes concluded that there is a risk from vaping even regulated products.

Meanwhile, in the absence of evidence, the safety of e-cigarettes is likely to be left in a permanent state of limbo because how do you prove that something isn’t harmful, long-term, when it still a relatively new product? “More research is needed,” researchers will say (with no hint of self-interest), leaving the issue tantalisingly open to debate.

Even if studies find no significant risk, I guarantee there will be plenty of studies whose results are nevertheless spun to suggest a threat far beyond the actual risk.

That’s what happened with passive smoking, if you remember. The overwhelming majority of studies found no significant risk to non-smokers yet even a tiny relative risk - far below the threshold at which something might be considered a serious risk - was used to justify bans on smoking in public places.

Even when the largest study of its kind found no significant risk from secondhand smoke on spouses of smokers in the home, the tobacco control industry refused to accept it. Why does anyone think public health - or indeed the media - will act differently on vaping?

UK vapers are probably a bit complacent because, for now at least, they have Public Health England, Action on Smoking and Health and other tobacco control bodies advocating the use of e-cigarettes in preference to smoking.

But how long will that last? Let’s be clear. The only reason PHE, ASH et al ‘support’ e-cigarettes is because they have identified vaping as a weapon in the war on smoking. To date, not one tobacco control group or public health body has endorsed e-cigarettes as a recreational product. For them, it’s a smoking cessation tool, nothing more, nothing less.

None of these bodies support long-term recreational vaping yet vaping advocacy groups cite them as if they are friends and allies. If and when the number of vapers exceeds the number of smokers in the UK, I suspect PHE, ASH and even the government will adopt a very different attitude to e-cigarettes.

The problem is, if advocates of vaping put all their eggs in the health basket, where do they go if it is one day found that e-cigarettes are NOT the panacea for smokers that current evidence suggests them to be. If and when that happens there has to be another reason to defend their use, and that is why I continue to bang the drum for choice.

My point is that, whatever the health risks, adults must be allowed to smoke, vape or consume other nicotine products like heated tobacco and snus without excessive regulation. Educate, inform and update consumers about the risks, but ultimately the choice must be theirs.

That argument should be consistent across all nicotine and tobacco products. Unfortunately, by playing the ‘health’ card to the max, vaping advocates are boxing themselves into a corner because if, one day, ‘evidence’ emerges that e-cigarettes are not as safe as advocates currently say there are, there will be no room for manoeuvre. The entire basis on which e-cigarettes have been sold to regulators will be undermined overnight.

In the meantime, as Carl Phillips has pointed out, even if you accept the PHE estimate that vaping is 95 per less harmful than smoking (Carl believes the true figure is nearer 100 per cent), that is still a substantial risk, in numerical terms, if you believe everything the likes of PHE and ASH say about the dangers of smoking.

The estimated figures vary, but ASH currently claims that 100,000 people die of smoking every year in the UK. Five per cent of 100k is 5,000.

Smoking was banned in public places in the UK on the grounds that 1,000 non-smokers were estimated to die every year from passive smoking. The figure mysteriously rose to 11,000 before MPs voted for the ban, but you get my point.

Given that cigarette vending machines were banned in the UK on a 2:1 majority after the presiding Appeal Court judge argued that if the legislation saved even one life it was worth it, the precautionary principle alone would support a ban on all sorts of products.

Bans on e-cigarettes, flavoured or otherwise, are an obvious case of the precautionary principle being taken too far. They also reflect a phenomenon that, paradoxically, affects e-cigarettes more than traditional cigarettes but, to the best of my knowledge, has not been commented upon - fear of the unknown.

When you smoke the overwhelming majority of people know the long-term risks. But is that true of vaping? Current evidence suggests the risks are very small. But e-cigarettes are still a very young product compared to traditional cigarettes so no-one can truthfully say they know for sure what the long-term effect might be.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful force and it may explain why some smokers prefer to stick with what they know, including the well-publicised health risks. The key argument therefore has to be choice. Consumers should be informed about the relative risks of using cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, snus and other nicotine products - indeed, they have a right to that information - but their right to choose should also be sacrosanct.

In short, none of these products should be prohibited. Unfortunately we live in a world governed by politicians and public health campaigners who want to create a risk averse society that puts prohibition and the infantilisation of adults above pleasure and personal responsibility.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, Carl Phillips posted a long thread on Twitter that is well worth reading. However, I can spare you the effort by reproducing his final comments:

Which brings us to the final and most important point here: if you are an advocate for the right to vape, please learn some history and join the larger struggle. Don't just fiddle at the surface.

Of course you are most focused on educating and fighting myths about vaping. But the larger fight is eroding the credibility of the myth-creating machine in general. So learn about and speak up about the myths about snus, environmental smoke, the effectiveness of tobacco control measures, that all smokers want to quit, etc.

And FFS, at least stop perpetuating tobacco control myths yourselves, or allowing other ostensible THR advocates to do so with impunity. The Tobacco Wars will [be] won or lost in toto. I trust it is finally clear that vapers are not going to be granted a deferment.

The message "yeah sure, most of what tobacco controllers say is true, but their stuff about vaping is wrong" is a sure loser. “Most of what tobacco controllers say is bullshit, including what they say about vaping" takes more effort, but it is what has a chance to succeed.

I agree with every word of this. Indeed, I’ve been banging a similar drum for some time. Unfortunately, I sense we are fighting a losing battle persuading vaping advocates to join what Carl rightly calls the ‘larger struggle’.

The problem is that many vaping advocates are tobacco control activists of long-standing and their goal is the eradication of smoking. Those who don’t share that aim (ex-smoking vapers mostly) nevertheless see an alliance or accommodation with tobacco control as the best way to secure vaping’s future.

Long-term they will be proved wrong (and Carl and I will be proved right!) but by then it will be too late. Tobacco control’s grip on all forms of nicotine consumption will be so strong it will be almost impossible to reverse.

Sadly, but perhaps understandably, hardly anyone is taking the long-term view. In the UK, many vapers and vaping advocates bask in the hilarious illusion that PHE and ASH are somehow the ‘good guys’. The reality, as I have noted before, is that the tobacco control industry in the UK now ‘owns’ vaping.

With the exception of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), all the prominent ‘pro-vaping’ spokesmen are professional tobacco control campaigners. They include Martin Dockrell, head of tobacco control at PHE; Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE; Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH; and Prof Linda Bauld who has so many job titles I can hardly keep up.

To overcome this imbalance, more people from outside the tobacco control bubble need to step forward and join the ‘larger fight’.

This morning on Newstalk (Ireland’s largest independent radio station) Forest Ireland spokesman John Mallon went head-to-head with Senator James Reilly who has called for a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes in Ireland.

Contrast this with the fact that the leading ‘pro-vaping’ advocates in Ireland have so far shunned Forest because of our connection with Big Tobacco. Sooner or later they need to understand they won’t win the war on vaping by ignoring the bigger picture or the one ally that has spent decades fighting for consumer choice.


From the archive: Stand Up for Freedom

According to Facebook this was my ‘most liked’ photo of 2014.

It was taken at the Hyatt Hotel, Birmingham, during Forest’s Stand Up for Freedom event featuring Comedy Store ‘veteran’ Chris Barrie.

As you can see, it was genuinely standing room only.

Tomorrow in Manchester I’m going to Comedy Unleashed at The Comedy Store.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares to our own Stand Up for Liberty events at The Comedy Store in 2011 and 2013!