Dinner in Dublin

Apologies for the lack of posts this past week.

I was stunned, to put it mildly, by the election result (which I didn't see coming), and there seemed little point adding to the cacophony of noise.

As it happens I've drafted a post with the title 'Why I'm warming to Theresa May' but it needs a bit of polishing.

In the meantime I'm in Dublin ahead of a dinner Forest is hosting tonight.

We've invited a dozen or so people, including several journalists and what passes for the libertarian community in Ireland, to a roundtable debate on the subject 'Is health the new religion'.

It should be noted that we also sent invitations to various health correspondents and writers specialising in health and with the exception of one, who subsequently pulled out, none of them were interested in attending. Most didn't even bother replying.

No matter, it should still be a good event. I got the idea for the format from the Institute of Ideas who invited me to a similar event at the Cinnamon Club in London when the guest speaker was our old friend Rod Liddle.

It's no coincidence then that tonight's guest speaker is Claire Fox, director of the IoI.

Claire is another old friend of Forest. I first met her 17 years ago when we were invited to a small soiree hosted by the late Auberon Waugh at the Academy Club in Soho.

It sounds impressive but the location was a small Dickensian room up a ricketty flight of stairs.

Waugh, who was the founder and editor of the Literary Review (which had its office next door), thought that a monthly drinks party would be a small gesture of thanks to his contributors, most of whom weren't paid.

He decided that Forest should 'sponsor' these events (ie pay for the drinks) which I was happy to do if it introduced us to the great and the not so good.

Claire Fox was a guest at the first event. So too was Tom Utley, the Daily Mail columnist who was then writing for the Telegraph. Mary Wakefield, now deputy editor of The Spectator, was there and I'm pretty sure (although I may be imagining it) that writer and journalist Tony Parsons was present too.

It was a warm summer evening and the room was thick with tobacco smoke so the best place to sit was next to the open sash windows overlooking Lexington Street.

By comparison the venue for tonight's dinner is distinctly upmarket. Most important, though, our private dining room has direct access to its own smoking terrace.

The event has already caused a minor stir with the Sunday Times Ireland running the following piece in Sunday's edition:

Forest Ireland, the raspy voice of the smoker, is looking for sympathetic journalists to attend a "special roundtable dinner" at L'Ecrivain, Dublin, next week to discuss "Is health the new religion?"

The lobby group, which claims not to represent the tobacco industry but admits getting most of its funding from fag peddlers like JTI and British American Tobacco, wants hacks attending to agree to the Chatham House rule.

Between competitive bouts of coughing, invitees will hear the views of Claire Fox, a committed smoker who runs a libertarian think tank in London, on the "puritannical evangelism" of the public health lobby.

We were puzzled by the proposed timetable, though, with Fox scheduled to speak for ten minutes between the first and main course. Surely all the guests will be outside having a fag before their mains.

They have a point.

More important, all publicity is good publicity. After it appeared I invited the journalist, news editor Colin Coyle, to tonight's dinner and he replied, graciously:

Thanks Simon but I'll have to pass. I shall be playing my weekly five-a-side football game to help keep the grim reaper at bay. But I may well be deluded. Best of luck tonight.

Can't say fairer than that.

PS. Claire will also be discussing 'Is health the new religion?' on Today FM at 2.30 and Newstalk, Ireland's largest independent national radio station, at 5.30. If you can get online at those times, tune in!


From Brussels with love

Here it is, the video of last week's Forest EU launch party.

Thanks to Dan Donovan for driving all the way to Brussels to film it. There are some great soundbites including the following:

"I'm made to feel like a leper because I choose to smoke. I know the risks but I also feel I shouldn't be made to feel ostracised."

"I'm not a smoker but I stand for smokers' rights because it's about freedom of choice and equality."

"Ever since I started smoking I've always felt bad about the fact that I'm a smoker. So for me, being in an environment where people are like, 'No, you should be allowed to smoke', it's very interesting. It's given me a different perspective on my habit as a smoker."

"Here we are all adults, we know the risks, and if I want to light a cigarettes please let me do it."

Last but certainly not least:

"An organisation like this speaks for me, as a smoker."

To watch the video on YouTube click here.


Help or harassment? Hospital targets patients who smoke

I had barely got back from Brussels yesterday when I was asked to record an interview for BBC Look North.

So I drove over to the BBC studios in Cambridge and spoke to presenter Peter Levy (above).

The subject was the decision by hospital administrators to ban smoking outside Hull Royal Infirmary.

Today I saw the full Look North report. You can watch it too but only until 6.45 tonight.

There are a couple of things to note.

One, the report features a 21-year-old patient who despite having a catheter and wearing a nightgown has been forced to go off site to smoke.

As she told the programme, "It's humiliating having to stand at a bus stop. It's like punishing you for smoking."

Two, a woman who is walking slowly with the use of crutches is being followed by a male "stop smoking specialist" who is physically a lot more imposing than she is.

He is walking alongside her and can be heard saying, "I was wondering if you'd like to take this opportunity to stop smoking yourself."

I'm not sure if this can be classified as help or harassment. Whichever, it looks and feels completely wrong to me.

Bear in mind I hadn't seen this report when I did my interview which was shown directly after. Nevertheless I said pretty much what I wanted to say.

Truth is, hospital smoking bans are a disgrace because they demonstrate a staggering lack of compassion to ordinary people. Weirdly perhaps I feel even more strongly about them than many other smoking bans.

Like smoking bans in mental care homes they target people, patients and visitors especially, when they may be at their most vulnerable – stressed, upset and in need of a comforting cigarette.

At Hull Royal Infirmary they used to have a smoking shelter. Today even that has been removed and replaced by a stark 'No Smoking' sign.

Increasingly hospitals are being run not by humans with a heart but by tick-boxing automatons with little empathy and no compassion for people who don't conform to current orthodoxy.

Frankly, it makes me sick.


Forest EU launch party

For years I've been told it would be difficult if not impossible to host a Forest-style event in Brussels.

What I mean by a 'Forest-style' event is one where smoking is a normal and unremarkable part of the evening, where smokers are accommodated without fuss or obvious segregation, and no-one cares a hoot or complains if guests light up.

On Wednesday night we gave it a go and over 100 people attended the official launch of Forest EU, 100 metres from the European Parliament.

The venue, The Staff 42, was an excellent choice. With a capacity of 120 it was neither too big nor too small.

We dressed it with Forest banners, one featuring the slogan 'Smoking. Let's Reignite Freedom of Choice'.

Every table had copies of the Forest EU manifesto, a ten-page concertina design the size of a packet of cigarettes.

On one wall a large widescreen TV displayed dozens of images of smokers on a rotating loop.

Guests included journalists, permanent representatives to the EU, parliamentary assistants, consultants and lobbyists and, most important, consumers.

Epicenter, Students for Liberty and SFL's new campaign Consumer Choice Center were also represented. 

Brits rubbed shoulders with guests from Ireland, Romania, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands (to name a few).

Complimentary drinks included mojitos (on arrival), red and white wine and a choice of Belgian beers. (I started with a mojito, moved on to red wine and finished the evening with one or two thirst quenching beers. Perfect.)

The food was better and more substantial than I expected - and it kept on coming.

Thanks to the warm, balmy weather most chose to eat, drink and smoke on the outside terrace which was separated from the indoor area by floor to ceiling glass doors and windows so it felt like an extension of the bar, not a separate area.

Our trio of jazz musicians sensibly moved outside too and played on the terrace.

In that type of environment long-winded speeches are the last thing people want to hear so we gave our guest speakers two minutes each and, by and large, they stuck to the brief.

I said a few words before handing over to Guillaume Perigois, director of Forest EU, who introduced Jonathan Siksou, a journalist and author of Le Tabac Passionnément; Dick Engel, former executive member of Smokepeace, the first (and only!) pan-European smokers' rights organisation (now defunct); and Benjamin Patock, owner of Noblego, an online tobacco shop in Germany and author of the cigar guide Das Zigarrenbuch für Einsteiger.

It was great to see Dick who had travelled from the Netherlands with Ton Wurtz who continues to be spokesman for Stichting Rokersbelangen, a Dutch smokers' rights group.

I hadn't seen Dick (a former policeman who now works with refugees) and Ton since they attended a Forest event at Boisdale in London almost ten years ago. We first met at a conference in Seville in 1999 that was largely organised by Mark Dober, a Brussels-based public affairs consultant.

I hadn't seen Mark – who has twice been voted 'European Consultant of the Year' – for 17 years so imagine my surprise on Wednesday when a man sitting next to me tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Remember Seville?" 

It took me a few moments to realise it was ... Mark Dober.

Mark, Ton, Dick. What a thrill to be reunited with the old gang. In all my years of working for Forest Seville is still one of my favourite memories.

Anyway, Forest EU's launch party was a success, I think. It began at 6.30 and was due to finish at 9.00 but a substantial number of guests stayed long after that, which is always a good sign.

At 10.00, for licensing reasons, we had to ask everyone to vacate the terrace. The last guests left half an hour or so later.

This is how Politico EU, the leading political news organisation in Brussels, reported the event yesterday:

Over cigars and mojitos at a Brussels restaurant (with terrace, for smoking), smokers rights’ campaigners vowed on Wednesday evening to revive the fight against anti-tobacco rules. “We accept and we totally understand the health risks of smoking, we embrace harm reduction products such as e-cigarettes, but we are passionate about freedom of choice and personal responsibility,” said Simon Clark, director of the Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (Forest), which launched its EU wing on Wednesday.

Clark deplored the disappearance of a dozen smoking rights groups across Europe in the last decade due to lack of funding. He hopes that Forest EU will galvanize support again to oppose smoking bans in public spaces such as parks, or the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive. Helped by a €150,000 grant from Japan Tobacco International, Forest EU wants the European Commission to justify any future measures against tobacco.

Below: The terrace (smoking allowed!).

PS. Dan Donovan, who was filming a video of the event, drove to Brussels with the Forest EU banners (six in all) and manifestos.

As we were tidying up on Wednesday night he calmly told me he couldn't find his car keys. After he got back to his hotel he sent me a text:

Keys were in the back seat of the cab we took to the venue. They've just brought them back to me. Phew.

Below: Forest EU director Guillaume Perigois being interviewed by RTL-TVI before Wednesday's launch party in Brussels, plus more photos of the event.


Case closed, mystery solved

Last week I wrote about a mystery demo in Whitehall.

According to the Observer (May 21):

On Friday the New Nicotine Alliance, led by Professor Gerry Stimson, a public health expert, protested against the new measures outside the Department of Health.

“Vaping has helped 1.5 million give up smoking,” Stimson said. “This extraordinary success is put at risk by rules that make vaping less attractive to Britain’s 9 million current smokers.”

I'd seen the protest promoted in advance on Twitter. What I didn't understand was why there was no evidence (photos, tweets etc) of it actually happening.

One tweet, posted ahead of the demo, mentioned that ITV News would be filming.

I have now been told that consumer editor Chris Choi did indeed turn up to record the protest and interview participants ... but no-one was there.

No matter, thanks to the Observer it's on record that a demo took place outside the Department of Health.

So, case closed. Mystery solved.

PS. Over 100 people attended the launch of Forest EU in Brussels last night. Report to follow.


Police and criminals

The official launch of Forest EU in Brussels tonight has ruffled a few feathers already.

Commenting on Twitter, one Belgian politician described us as "Les criminels des lobbys du tabac".

Another (a "chief family officer" and "visiting lecturer") added, "It isn't the cigarette that kills but the man who manipulates #NRAstyle."

Others have highlighted the fact that Forest is supported by tobacco companies, as if this is a great revelation.

They ignore the fact that – unlike the tobacco control lobby – we couldn't be more transparent about our funding. The Forest EU website even gives the exact figure our Brussels operation is getting from JTI in 2017.

Meanwhile Politico EU reports that:

Smokers’ campaigners sponsored by Japan Tobacco International will throw a pro-smoking party tonight in the European neighborhood at Staff 42. A live jazz band has been booked for the 200 expected guests and smoking will be allowed on the terrace.

Ignoring the "pro-smoking" bon mot, I've no idea where they got the 200 figure from. Not from us.

Capacity at Staff 42 is 120 (the number of people who have registered, coincidentally) but if we get 70 or 80 (including one or two journalists) I'll be very happy.

Btw, speakers tonight include Dick Engel, a former policeman from the Netherlands.

I first met Dick in 1999. We were at a conference in Seville and he was representing the Dutch smokers' rights group Stichting Rokersbelangen.

Forest and Stichting Rokersbelangen were members of a loose coalition of groups called Smokepeace that was founded in 1992 and disbanded in 2001 when funding stopped.

Only three of the twelve or so groups that were affiliated to Smokepeace still exist – Forest, Stichting Rokersbelangen and Club Fumadores in Spain.

While Dick is an ex-policeman (vice squad, to be exact) tonight's guests also include a current police detective (and smoker) who works in Brussels.

The question is, by fraternising with Forest, does that make them criminals too?


Plus ça change 

Travelling to Brussels today (although I am currently struggling to get to London because of "signalling problems").

Tomorrow we're hosting a small drinks party to mark the official launch of Forest EU.

Venue is The Staff 42, a smart bar restaurant just yards from the European Parliament.

By coincidence May 31 is also World No Tobacco Day and to mark the occasion the Brussels-based Smoke Free Partnership - whose members include ASH and Cancer Research UK - is organising its own event in the European Parliament.

Entitled 'Tobacco: A Threat to Development' it's a lunch reception and 'policy debate' hosted by Linda McAvan MEP, chairman of the European Parliament Development Committee.

Join us with high level speakers including Health Commissioner Andriukaitis and representatives of the WHO, the World Bank and international tobacco control advocates to discuss the importance of tobacco control to sustainable development.

However, unlike the Forest party, which has an open door policy, the Smoke Free Partnership 'debate' is far less welcoming.

Please note: the tobacco industry and those representing tobacco industry interests are not invited, in accordance with the Article 5.3 FCTC. All registrations will be screened.

Inevitably perhaps this is the response Forest EU director Guillaume Perigois got after he applied to attend the event:

We regret to inform you that we are unable to confirm your registration to World No Tobacco Day 2017 Policy debate. Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us by replying to this email.

Naturally Guillaume replied (as suggested) in order get a more detailed explanation for his exclusion - and five days later he's still waiting for a response.

So instead of lunch with Linda McAvan and her chums Guillaume will have to settle for drinks with like-minded supporters of individual freedom (and a handful of curious observers), which is some consolation I suppose.

It does however demonstrate what we're up against - a wilful refusal by tobacco control advocates and their allies in government to engage with anyone who doesn't cling to the current anti-tobacco orthodoxy

This is nothing new, of course. Older readers may recall a meeting I attended in Brussels in March 2008. Hosted by DG Sanco (now DG Sante) it was described as a meeting of "EU experts, civil society and social partners to support the Commission's Impact Assessment on the forthcoming initiative on smoke-free environments".

There were approximately 20 people present including representatives of tobacco control and Big Pharma and it kicked off soon as the meeting began.

One of the leading anti-smoking activists present immediately singled me out and said that unless I was removed from the meeting she would leave. Others nodded their heads in agreement.

The most shameful thing though was not the behaviour of the tobacco control zealots (which I half expected) but the response of every other person around the table who looked sheepish and said nothing to support me.

Rarely have I witnessed anything so spineless or self-interested and the experience (which I actually quite enjoyed) has driven me on ever since.

You can read the full account here.


Evolution not revolution

Scientists say so-called 'light' cigarettes with ventilated filters may have made smokers more vulnerable to what is now the most common form of lung cancer.

Research has found a ‘clear relationship’ between rising rates of adenocarcinoma and greater demand for ‘light’ cigarettes.

On the back of that report a local newspaper asked Forest to contribute 220 words for a feature that asked, 'Is it time to ban cigarettes completely?'

This is what I submitted:

There are many things that are potentially bad for us – alcohol, sugary drinks, fast food, cigarettes. The government’s role is not to prohibit popular products but to educate consumers about the health risks and allow adults to make informed choices.

Governments also have to be pragmatic. Smokers contribute £12 billion a year in tobacco duties and tax, revenue that far exceeds the alleged cost of treating smoking-related diseases.

That aside, banning cigarettes won’t stop people smoking. Instead it would drive the product underground and into the hands of criminal gangs, which is what happened following the prohibition of alcohol in America in the 1920s.

Today smokers are a minority group but there are still nine million smokers in the UK, many of whom enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit despite the well-publicised health risks.

According to recent research 95 per cent of confirmed smokers say they smoke because they enjoy it. Whatever the ‘official’ view of smoking, cigarettes are undoubtedly a source of comfort and pleasure to millions of people.

That won’t change until something better comes along that meets consumer demand. E-cigarettes are a step in that direction and should be supported, but you can’t force smokers to quit or switch to a safer alternative by banning combustible cigarettes. Change has to be based on evolution not revolution.

I'll link to the feature if and when it appears online.