Friday
Apr292011

Bad news for republicans

Wall-to-wall coverage of the Royal Wedding on US and European TV.

From my hotel in Brussels I can report that it is currently featuring on CNN, BBC World, France 24, La Une, EEN, Ned 1 (Netherlands), ZDF (Germany), ERT (Spain) and Al Jazeera to name a few.

Thursday
Apr282011

Royal wedding fever

I shall miss the Royal Wedding because I'll be in Brussels for a meeting.

When I get back tomorrow evening however I hope to join friends and family for the tail end of a party to mark the occasion.

How different it was 30 years ago when Charles married Diana. I was 22 and I had been living in London for less than a year.

For the first month I stayed in a hostel near Paddington. After that I moved to a flat in West Ealing. But it was so cold (there was no central heating) I didn't need persuading to move to a better flat in another area.

My new address was a short walk from Marble Arch and Hyde Park and an even shorter walk to the Edgware Road and the No 6 bus that, conveniently, took me to within a few yards of my office in Fleet Lane.

I mention this not because it's interesting (it's not!) but because the locations are central to my recollection of the 1981 royal wedding.

As its name suggests, Fleet Lane was close to Fleet Street, and as anyone with any knowledge of London will tell you, Fleet Street leads directly on to Ludgate Hill and at the top of Ludgate Hill is St Paul's Cathedral.

In the days preceding the wedding we therefore had a grandstand view as hundreds of visitors bagged their places on Ludgate Hill.

When we left the office for a lunchtime drink (or sandwich) there were bodies everywhere. We were literally tripping over them. It was an extraordinary sight and it was hard not to be impressed by the atmosphere and people's determination to get a front row seat, even if it was only sitting on the pavement.

The night before the wedding there was a free open air concert in Hyde Park and because I lived close to the park my flat became a magnet for friends (and friends of friends) who wanted to go.

It finished with a firework display set to music (except that no-one could hear the music because the fireworks were so loud). Afterwards we walked back to the flat and had a party that lasted well into the night.

Dawn was breaking when the last person left so I don't remember much about the wedding itself, which we watched on TV, but I do remember this. Away from the route of the procession the streets of London were almost totally deserted. If you weren't in the crowds lining the route between Buckingham Palace and St Paul's, you were almost certainly watching the event on television.

I know this because after the wedding ceremony we decided to walk to the Palace and join the crowds outside and I don't remember seeing anyone until we got to Constitution Hill where the roars told us that Charles and Di had returned from St Paul's and were on the balcony with other members of the royal family.

But what I remember most is the extraordinary atmosphere. Writing in the Daily Telegraph last week, Charles Moore commented:

Next week, the preacher at the wedding will be Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London. He knows the Royal family better than any other clergyman, dating back to his time at university with the Prince of Wales. Last month, he confirmed Miss Middleton. In 1981, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, the young Chartres was chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, so he attended the wedding in St Paul’s. After the ceremony, he was walking down the street in his clerical clothes when he found himself surrounded by a gang of skinheads. Had he just been to the wedding, they asked him. Nervously, he admitted that he had. At this news, the skinheads all hugged him and sang the national anthem.

As a young journalist in Fleet Street at the time, I can testify that the skinheads authentically represented the national feeling. Then, as now, the country was undergoing financial austerity. There had been riots. But suddenly all the anger melted away. The vast crowds for the fireworks the night before the wedding were the friendliest I have ever seen. On the day itself, the delight was genuine. I think this will be true again next week.

I remember coming across a similar gang. They were punks rather than skinheads but their response to us was the same. On any other day we would have ignored one another. But on that day something (excitement, national pride?) drew us together. We left them waving and wreathed in smiles.

Moments like that I will never forget.

Will we look back on tomorrow's events with equally fond memories? I've no idea, but if you are in London tomorrow I hope you have as good a day as we did 30 years ago.

Wednesday
Apr272011

Government cuts tobacco guidelines

A few weeks ago there was a lively discussion on this blog concerning cross-Channel shopping.

Today the Government will publish Tackling Tobacco Smuggling – building on our success (a renewed strategy for HM Revenue & Customs and the UK Border Agency) and what I feared might happen has been confirmed – the Government is set to reduce the guidelines on the amount of tobacco you can bring into the country for your own personal use.

The Guardian has the story (Treasury to cut duty-free tobacco guidelines in £2bn tax clawback effort). According to the paper:

The proposed change, which sets a guideline limit of 800 cigarettes and 1kg of rolling tobacco, will reignite a battle with campaigners such as smokers' rights group Forest. Simon Clark, director of Forest, described the move as "shocking", noting that current limits of up to 3,200 cigarettes and 3kg of rolling tobacco were set in 2002 after an attempt to clamp down further met with outrage and legal challenges.

Treasury minister Justine Greening is to set out plans to slash existing guideline limits, bringing them in line with Ireland and many other parts of Europe. "It doesn't actually change the rules," she said. "People who are holidaymakers or travellers from the UK, who maybe want to bring back some cigarettes when they come home for personal use, they are not affected at all. But we do believe this will do is start to deter those people who are actually just using minimum indicative levels as a way of bringing in wholesale amounts of cigarettes."

"The levels people [will still be able to] bring in are more than enough for their own personal use — that is not something we would, or should, challenge."

This claim was immediately challenged by Clark said: "The Labour government was forced to increase the limit from 800 to 3,200 because there was chaos at airports and ports around the country, with goods and vehicles being seized all over the place. We have absolutely been there with the 800 guideline. It didn't work."

I understand the Government's position. They want to reduce the £2.2bn lost to tobacco smugglers each year. But this isn't the way to do it. The people they should be targetting are the criminals who smuggle millions of cigarettes into Britain each year.

Reducing the guidelines won't stop some of our more determined friends who know the law, can prove that the tobacco is for their own use, and aren't afraid to argue with Customs officials. But many more people will have their luggage and their cars searched and I won't be surprised if a lot more law-abiding shoppers have their goods seized in the months and years ahead.

To put the 'new' strategy in perspective, it threatens to take us back to the days when thousands of cross-Channel shoppers were victims, we felt, of over-zealous officials whose heavy-handed attempts to crack down on genuine smugglers caused a great deal of anger among ordinary, law-abiding consumers.

The Government can't have it both ways. Having only recently increased tobacco taxation above the rate of inflation, it is only natural that more people will take the opportunity to buy their tobacco, quite legally, abroad.

I understand that cigarettes will keep for at least 12 months. A 20-a-day smoker will consume 3,200 cigarettes in 160 days; the same person will consume 800 cigarettes in just 40 days. The current guideline (3,200) is a reasonable compromise that most people can live with. The new guideline is unreasonable and, if history is a guide, will cause more problems than it solves.

Politicians never learn, do they?

Tuesday
Apr262011

My Olympic marathon

I am doing my best to get tickets for the Olympic Games and failing miserably.

It's 23:20 and the deadline is 23:59. I have been sitting at my computer for a good two and a half hours but every time I try to create an account to register my interest in athletics, boxing, cycling (track), equestrian, gymnastics, rowing and volleyball (without which I can't even begin to apply for tickets), I get a message that reads:

We're experiencing high demand. You will be automatically directed to the page requested as soon as it becomes available. Thank you for your patience.

Patience? I ran out of that when I started to write this. (I've just checked and the registration page is still 'processing', which to me means 'frozen' because it hasn't changed for 45 minutes.)

In hindsight I should have applied earlier but I've been away and the organisers must have anticipated a last minute surge of interest, surely?

I imagine there must be thousands of people, just like me, staring at their computer screens, too scared to go to bed and tell their wives or partners that they have, er, missed the deadline but it really wasn't their fault because, well, the server couldn't cope with the amount of traffic and ...

The least they could do is extend the deadline.

Oh well, I guess we won't be going to the 2012 Olympic Games, after all. Perhaps I'll use the money for a holiday, somewhere far, far away from the Olympic Stadium.

I'll give it one more go ....

23:43 ... I'm in! Message on my screen now reads:

You're almost done!
A message has been sent to the email address you provided so you can activate your account. Please click on the link to activate your account. If you don't activate your account, we won't be able to send you any information.

23:47 ... Where the hell is that email?!

BREAKING NEWS: Olympic 2012 ticket website deadline extended until 1am GMT after site experienced delays (Guardian website).

23:55 ... Still waiting for the email that will allow me to activate my account and apply for tickets. Where is it?

23:59 ... It's arrived!

Tuesday
Apr262011

Why I'm supporting Rally Against Debt

I support radical public spending cuts. There, I've said it.

I'm no economist but even I can see that Britain is borrowing far more than it can afford and something has to be done to reduce public expenditure and the size of the public sector in general. As Mrs T once said, "There is no alternative".

Personally, I believe that excessive debt is a serious threat to 'freedom' in the sense that it leads to greater taxation (higher VAT, higher National Insurance, and an extended period of higher rate income tax) and other controls with the result that more power is placed in the hands of government and unelected civil servants at the expense of ordinary people.

The longer it takes to tackle the debt problem the longer we are subservient to government, in much the same way as people who have a long-term mortgage or other debts are subservient to banks, building societies, loan sharks etc etc.

If there is a problem it lies in the fact that public spending is not being cut as much or as quickly as many of us believe it should. (As for the NHS and overseas aid being ring-fenced from public spending cuts, the only question is – why???)

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Cuts in public spending are something to celebrate (The Free Society):

I want to see less not more government. That means a leaner, more efficient public sector and fewer public sector workers. The Government shouldn’t need an excuse to reduce public spending because it is the right thing to do ...

Clearly there is a huge amount of waste and inefficiency in the public sector which is staffed by hundreds of thousands of unelected mandarins (the same mandarins who draft tobacco control regulations) ...

The economic crisis has given Britain an unexpected but wonderful opportunity to cut public expenditure and reduce inefficiency in the public sector.

Long term the benefits should include lower income tax and less government interference in our lives. Demonstrate? We ought to be celebrating.

Other reasons to support Rally Against Debt:

The TUC's March for the Alternative was supported by Labour leader Ed Miliband who, unbelievably, seemed to compare anti-cuts protestors with the suffragette movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and the civil rights movement in America.

Opponents of the cuts, including members of UK Uncut, a direct action group, staged a sit-in at what one columnist called the "upmarket food emporium Fortnum & Mason", while a group of black-clad activists in masks smashed some of the windows at the neighbouring Ritz Hotel.

For further information about the Rally Against Debt in London on Saturday May 14, click here.

See also: Why rally against debt? (The Free Society)

Tuesday
Apr262011

Is 'vaping' the new smoking?

Interesting to read that e-cigarettes are to be regulated as tobacco products in the USA.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has agreed to regulate smokeless electronic cigarettes as tobacco products and won’t try to regulate them under stricter rules for drug-delivery devices.

The news is said to be a victory for the makers and distributors of e-cigs, one or two of whom have been quick to respond, recognising a good marketing opportunity.

According to the manufacturer of Vapestick, for example:

A Vapestick is an electronic cigarette that delivers the same experience as smoking a normal cigarette but without the intake, or emission, of the harmful pollutants produced by tobacco smoke.

Vapesticks produce no tar, no ash, no carbon monoxide and they are odourless. They work electronically, with a water-based vapour delivering the smoke sensation, and this has made them an instant hit with pubs and clubbers as they are also completely legal to use anywhere.

Further, newly released Vapestick models have the option to come with or without nicotine and different levels of nicotine Vapesticks have been developed so that users can find the closest alternative option to the tobacco cigarettes they have been used to, and decrease levels of nicotine over time, if they wish.

Smoking with a vapestick, or vaping as it has become commonly known, has finally given people the option to smoke anywhere again, without having to pollute themselves and those around them.

The company's website adds that 'vaping' is the new smoking. "Why smoke when you can vape?" it asks.

The issue of smokeless tobacco products is a very interesting one. I have heard it said that cigarettes – the overwhelmingly dominant tobacco product of the last hundred years – will gradually lose that dominance in the 21st century as consumers graduate to a wide range of smokeless tobacco products. These will include e-cigs, snus (if it is legalised) and products that have yet to be developed.

I don't have a problem with that – or the FDA's announcement about e-cigs (which I welcome) – but I worry that the manufacturers of e-cigarettes are far too keen to jump on the anti-smoking bandwagon. It's understandable, I suppose – they have a smokeless product to sell – but annoying nevertheless.

Last year I was contacted by a journalist working for an internet marketing company that was promoting an electronic cigarette company. I was asked if Forest would like an article about e-cigarettes for our website.

I replied as follows:

Dear xxx

Thanks for your email. Funnily enough, it is a subject we would like to address because I am conscious that an increasing number of cigarette smokers are using e-cigarettes.

I did mention the subject on my blog last year and that attracted quite a lot of comment, which opened my eyes a bit. It was interesting, to me, how strongly people felt about e-cigarettes and I was impressed that that there is quite a community of consumers that is quite active on blogs and forums.

What I noticed was there are three distinct groups:

1. Consumers of e-cigarettes who have given up tobacco and regard tobacco consumers as "unhealthy" or "losers"
2. Hard core cigarette smokers who consider consumers of e-cigarettes to have "sold out"
3. Cigarette smokers who find e-cigarettes a useful alternative in situations (eg pubs, public transport) where they are not allowed to light up

No 3 appears to be largest group and it's that group that interests Forest.

It's not an area I know much about so any information/articles etc would be useful and I would be happy to link to your site, although we have to be careful not to promote any particular brand.

I have also seen some e-cigs marketed in a way that seems designed to denigrate cigarettes (for health or other reasons) and for most of our supporters that is not particularly helpful because it reinforces some people's prejudice towards tobacco users.

In response I received the following 'article' that, until now, I have chosen not to publish, prefering to file it away in a folder marked 'E-Cigarettes: PR and Marketing':

Electronic nicotine imitation cigarettes could "help save the lives of millions of smokers", that's according to Elaine Keller, Vice President of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association.

"I believe e-cigarettes will prove to be a very important tool in an arsenal of Smoking Replacement Products that can be used to save the lives of millions of smokers who cannot or will not stop using nicotine,” she said.

“Nicotine does not cause lung disease, heart disease or cancer. There are people who are never going to be able to stop smoking nicotine and there are safer ways than smoking to take nicotine in," she added.

Elaine Keller stopped smoking 'traditional' cigarettes in 2009 and she firmly believes that her health has since improved. 

"I smoked for decades and I tried everything you could imagine to stop but every time I stopped using nicotine I became very ill. For me this[the e-cigarette] is a life safer, it's an answer to a prayer."

"Like a lot of folks who smoked for decades and tried dozens of times to quit without success, using every method imaginable, I see this invention as a life-saver.

“I used to be kept awake at night by the sound of my own wheezing. I used to cough up nasty stuff every morning. Now, the wheezing is gone and so is the cough.

“The best part is that I can laugh out loud without going into a fit of coughing," she added.
Some medical experts have called for the products to be regulated but Elaine Keller does not agree.

"They're not treating nicotine addiction. What they're doing is being used as a substitute for smoking which is obviously less harmful if you just look at what's happened with my own health."

I have nothing against e-cigarettes or any other smokeless tobacco product. Far from it. I believe in consumer choice and the more choice the better as long as it's informed and, in respect of tobacco, restricted to adults.

I want to learn more about smokeless tobacco products and Forest will, I hope, lead the way in providing consumers with as much information as possible so you can make an informed choice.

But I guarantee this. We will not turn our backs on smokers nor will we defend one group of tobacco consumers at the expense of another.

See: E-cigarettes to be regulated as tobacco products

Monday
Apr252011

Review of the week

Sunday
Apr242011

Homeward bound

We left Switzerland this morning, heading west via Basle.

Currently taking a pit stop in northern France en route to Calais where we will board a Eurotunnel train. After that it should take a couple of hours to drive home.

Normal service will be resumed shortly. (Lots to report, and announce.) In the meantime, and further to my previous post, I can reveal that:

Largely unknown by British skiers, Engelberg is one of Switzerland’s best kept secrets. At the end of an open sunny valley and dominated by the impressive 3,200m Mount Titlis, it is a large and friendly traditional village. The world’s first revolving cable car provides a unique way to view the varied terrain as you travel to the guaranteed snow on the glacier 2kms above the village. (Source: ski-direct.co.uk)

We didn't experience "the world's first revolving cable car", which was near the top of the mountain, but we did reach 6,000 feet via a more traditional cable car that appeared, during one stage, to be travelling almost vertically – at which point I shut my eyes, clung to the edge of the seat and swore quietly, much to the amusement of the woman sitting opposite.

That experience was followed by lunch on the sun terrace of an alpine lodge and a relaxing walk around a frozen lake that was just beginning to thaw. With thick snow on one side and acres of grass on the other, it offered a striking contrast.

The return journey down the mountainside was even more spectacular - and this time I kept my eyes open from start to finish.

Above: view from Mount Rigi which we visited on Thursday. We reached the summit via the mountain railway you can see in the picture.