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Sunday
Jul312011

EC cries foul as citizens have their say

Late last year we invited you to sign an online petition.

It was set up so consumers could respond to the European Commission’s public consultation on the possible revision of the EC's Tobacco Products Directive.

Last week the EC published its long-awaited report on the consultation. It makes for interesting and sometimes hilarious reading.

The first thing to note is that the consultation generated over 85,000 responses, which is similar to the 96,000 responses that were generated for the British Government's 'Consultation on the future of tobacco control' in 2008.

According to the Department of Health at the time, "Responses overwhelmingly supported removing tobacco displays in shops, and tough action to restrict access to vending machines", which is true. Digging a little deeper, however, we quickly found out why.

Writing on this blog in December 2008 I pointed out that of the 96,515 responses the overwhelming majority (79,272) were generated by the publicly-funded tobacco control industry.

Did the DoH think fit to comment on this? Did they heck, and why would they? After all, the result of the consultation suited the government because it rubber-stamped its own policy. As I said at the time, this was not a public consultation, it was a public sector consultation.

Fast forward to the report on the EC consultation and there are two striking differences.

One, there is a huge majority against further tobacco control measures. Yes, you read that correctly. I quote from the report:

A significant majority of (citizen) respondents were against extending the scope of the Directive (ie further regulations).

A vast majority of (citizen) respondents ... were in favour of lifting the ban on snus.

A significant majority of (citizen) respondents disagreed with the regulation of ingredients at the EU level.

A significant majority of (citizen) respondents opposed limiting access to tobacco products.

To put this in perspective, the number of citizen respondents was 82,117 (or 96 per cent of the overall total). We are therefore talking about a massive majority against further tobacco controls.

Two, unlike the DoH which chose not to comment on the source of the 'citizen' responses (no doubt because the result in 2008 suited its agenda), the EC is far less reticent. For example:

It is to be noted that the responses to the consultation do not represent a survey of a diverse cross-section of society ...

While it is encouraging to see a great number of responses, it should also be noted that this volume appears to be a result, to a large extent, of several citizen mobilisation campaigns that took place in some Member States ...

Several different methods of mobilising and encouraging participation in the consultation process were utilized: from producing websites providing detailed information and guidance on how to participate ... to producing and distributing videos via YouTube about the need to limit changes to tobacco product regulation and tobacco control policy.

The actions and efforts of these campaigns and their ability to mobilise citizens seem to have affected the overall results of the public consultation.

As a result of this, the report argues that:

"It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the outcome of the public consultation procedure".

Difficult to draw firm conclusions?!!

I beg to differ. I defy anyone to read this report without coming to the (remarkably easy) conclusion that:

  • Most EU governments support further tobacco controls. Ditto public health organisations and pharmaceutical companies.
  • A significant majority of EU citizens who will be directly affected by further tobacco controls are opposed to more tobacco regulation. Indeed, they would like some existing restrictions, like the EU-wide ban on snus, lifted.

The problem for the EC is this:

It is not the result they were expecting, hence the almost desperate need to point out that the largest number of responses were from Italy (36 per cent) and Poland (28 per cent) where there were two popular retailer-led campaigns. (The UK, btw, was third, with nine per cent, just ahead of Germany and Spain with eight per cent each.)

The implication is that the response to their own public consultation was not representative and they will focus instead on an earlier Eurobarometer survey, published in May 2010, in which "respondents .... were considerably more supportive of all proposed changes presented in the public consultation".

I would also hazard a guess that – to avoid similar embarrassment in future – EU member states will be encouraged to copy the example of the British Government in 2008 and large sums of public money will be given to tobacco control groups to ensure that such a result never happens again. We'll see.

To read – and enjoy – the full report click here.

Oh, and thanks to everyone who signed the Forest petition!

Saturday
Jul302011

Review of the week

Thursday
Jul282011

Lynn Hughes: the sound of silence

I am still awaiting a response from Lynn Hughes, editor of the Luton Herald & Post, following last week's now infamous article.

On Monday I sent the following email:

Dear Ms Hughes

Re Alan Dee's article in the current issue of the Herald & Post, I am writing to add the name of Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) to those who have already commented via email and on various blogs including my own.

Unlike tobacco control lobbyists (who refuse frequently to share a platform or debate openly with us) I believe in free speech and I defend anyone's right to be offensive or to have a different opinion to mine.

For that reason I will not be joining the chorus of voices who wish to take this matter to the Press Complaints Commission or, worse, the police.

Nevertheless, on behalf of our supporters, I must express deep disappointment with the tone and content of Alan Dee's article.

It seems that smokers are an easy target these days. I certainly can't imagine Alan Dee having the courage to make similar comments about other minority groups, or those who are unfit, overweight, enjoy a drink etc.

He is mistaken too to speak so derisively of Stony Stratford where an ill-judged attempt to ban smoking in all outdoor public places has met fierce opposition and attracted little or no support.

The people who protested so vehemently against a ban on smoking in the streets of Stony Stratford are ordinary people. They included smokers and non-smokers like myself.

Alan Dee is entitled to both his opinion and his adolescent sense of humour, but the people he is attacking represent not just ordinary people but a substantial percentage of your readership.

I am not seeking an apology, although we would like an acknowledgement of the anger Alan Dee's article has provoked.

Instead I would like to request the right of reply in your next available issue, preferably on the same page occupied by Alan Dee. (I'm sure he won't mind giving up his column for one week only!)

I appreciate that this may go against your normal editorial policy but in the light of Alan Dee's incendiary article - which coincided unintentionally with the grave and tragic events in Norway - I believe that it would be an appropriate response.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely

Simon Clark
Director, Forest

If anyone has received a response from Lynn Hughes it would be useful to know before we take the matter further.

On Monday grumpybutterfly reported that he thought she sounded "contrite" when he spoke to her.

No evidence of that so far.

If I was in Lynn Hughes's shoes I would have at least acknowledged our complaints, if only to take the heat out of the situation.

Instead she may be hoping we will go away. We won't.

PS. I am trying to track down a copy of this week's issue, out today, to see whether there is any reference to Alan Dee's article.

Meanwhile I have sent a further email to the editor:

Dear Ms Hughes

I would be grateful for a response to my email, sent on Monday, and your reaction to the complaints you have received following the publication of Alan Dee's article last week.

An early response would be appreciated.

Simon Clark
Director, Forest

Thursday
Jul282011

Forest Eireann fights back

My arrival in Ireland yesterday coincided with the news that Minister for Heath and Children Dr James Reilly wants to ban smoking in cars with children.

"I don't think anyone in their right mind could agree that smoking in a car with a child is a sensible, wise, moral or ethical thing to do," he said.

The good news is that in contrast to the introduction of the smoking ban in Ireland, when there was no organised opposition, our decision to launch Forest Eireann last year is at last being vindicated.

I've lost count of the number of interviews FE spokesman John Mallon did yesterday. He was even quoted by RTE, an important breakthrough.

This morning John is also quoted in the two quality dailies, the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner. The former, in particular, sets the news agenda in Ireland and is read by most politicians.

I still kick myself that Forest didn't establish a group in Ireland long before the smoking ban was enforced in 2004. I'm not saying we would have stopped it, but at least there would have been a debate.

The purpose of Forest Eireann is to make sure that no more tobacco control regulations are introduced in Ireland - with the potential knock-on effect in Britain - without a fight.

PS. I'm seeing John Mallon later today. I imagine we may have a drink or three to mark the occasion.

Wednesday
Jul272011

Travel news

Arrived home from Edinburgh, via Stansted, at eight o'clock last night.

This morning, twelve hours later, I am back at Stansted to catch the 9.50 Ryanair flight to Dublin.

Limited blogging today!

Tuesday
Jul262011

Days like this

It's on days like this that I wonder why I ever left Edinburgh.

Blue sky, bright sunshine and a very light breeze that is keeping the temperature exactly how I like it - warm enough to stroll around without a jacket but cool enough not to (how shall I put this?) perspire. Perfect.

I am currently sitting in Caffe Lucano on George IV Bridge surrounded, as ever, by newspapers, books and assorted notes.

It wasn't my first choice of cafe but I had forgotten that The Elephant House across the road (I am looking at it as I tap the keyboard) now promotes itself as the 'Birthplace of Harry Potter'.

As a result there is a long queue for seats and the place is heaving with tourists. What a pity. It used to be one of my favourite cafes. I'll come back in January, perhaps, when it should be less busy.

As it happens, Edinburgh is blessed with lots of great cafes, pubs and restaurants. Living in Cambridgeshire it's one of the things I miss most about the city.

Last night we had dinner at The Ship on the Shore in Leith. It's possibly one of the best seafood restaurants in Britain. Friendly staff, great atmosphere, and the adjoining pub served a great pint of Old Speckled Hen!

What is noticeable since I left Edinburgh in 1999 are the enormous number of outside tables - a direct result of the smoking ban. Fine on days like today but not much fun during those long winter months.

Anyway, there's a simple remedy whenever I have thoughts of moving back to Scotland - I amble down the Royal Mile and reacquaint myself with the Scottish Parliament and all that it symbolises.

Never say never and all that, but for the foreseeable future I'll stick to regular visits.

Monday
Jul252011

Some things are beyond the pale, even as a joke

I have just received this response to 'Snipergate', as I'm sure it will be called.

As it happens, it reflects my own views.

GUEST POST BY GRUMPYBUTTERFLY

As I live, and smoke, in one of the areas where the Luton and Dunstable Herald and Post is distributed and sold I suppose I am one of those who should be placed in the sights of Alan Dee’s licensed snipers.
It’s a local paper and only locals usually see it. And, who knows, one warped local mind might feel that such views, in print, legitimise extreme and irrational thoughts.
Unlikely, I know, and besides it was only written as a joke. Presumably, therefore, I or anyone else similarly inclined could write an article advocating council sponsored snipers for any other minority group you care to name. As a joke of course. It would not, quite rightly, be allowed. The article, if written, would be ditched.
From architects to zookeepers all would be protected. But smokers are different, they are not people, they are what they do not what they are. They are the easy, and in these sensitive times, only target. Literally so in Mr Dee’s view, if only as a joke.
So I rang the editor, Lynn Hughes, and requested that she publicly retract any support for the article and apologise to that persecuted minority who still enjoy a cigarette.
It wasn’t easy doing this. I am by nature instinctively against bans and overregulation and sorry handwringing at past misdeeds. And in spite of getting old I still have a sense of humour.
But increasingly I feel myself getting more and more militant at the constant hounding of those who enjoy a perfectly legal, and highly taxed, product. I have never knowingly broken the law but fear that day will arrive when smokers are driven off the streets.
It was against this background that Mr Dee’s lazy journalism, and his papers tacit support of it, seriously irked me and made me call.
It was a very polite conversation. I formed the impression that Lynn Hughes had returned to her office to be greeted with an unusual number of protests regarding Mr Dee’s article.
It was clearly high on her morning agenda even before I phoned. We naturally discussed the timing but, terrible as those events in Norway were, they are not relevant to the basic issue. She did not say that an apology would be issued in the next copy of the paper but she is clearly considering the position and sounded a little contrite.
Whether that is for the sensitivities of smokers or the crassness of the article I do not know. We both agreed that people should be allowed opinions in a healthy society.
I used to write a theatre column for The Herald’s sister paper and my opinions used to get me into lots of trouble. But, as far as I can remember, I never advocated the shooting of any of the actors. Even as a joke.
There are certain rules one obeys. Unless your target is smokers, and then you can say anything. It is that underlying presumption rather than Mr Dee’s specific article that needs challenging.
Monday
Jul252011

More thoughts on snipers and smoking

Greetings from Edinburgh.

Flew up yesterday and am currently sitting outside Petit Paris in the Grassmarket, glass of wine in one hand, iPad in the other.

The sun is shining and on the table in front of me are copies of the Herald, Scotsman, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

Bliss.

Talking of newspapers, I see my previous post - and the extraordinary article Snipers could soon snuff out smoking - has attracted some comment.

If I'm honest, I can't agree with those who want to bring in the Press Complaints Commission or, worse, the police.

Let's put it this way. I believe in free speech and that includes the right to be offensive. Do you really want the author of 'Snipers could soon sniff out smoking' sacked or charged with an offence? I don't.

What I want is for people to understand that the war on tobacco (and now smokers) has gone far enough. Stony Stratford, and now this, has drawn a line in the sand.

We should make our feelings known to the editor and to other interested parties, but let's not fall into the trap of becoming as intolerant as our opponents.

Personally I welcome the publication of 'Snipers could soon sniff out smoking' because it demonstrates the folly of the crusade to 'denormalise' a significant minority of the population.

Attempting to be humorous, Alan Dee took this policy to an absurd level, for which I'm grateful.

The villains however are not journalists like Dee or even editor Lynn Hughes, who I understand is contrite and regrets her decision to publish the article. (More on this later.)

Truth is, Dee and Hughes are merely reacting in a rather thoughtless way to the green light that has been given by successive governments to demonise smokers.

Thanks to government policy on tobacco, and the relentless campaign to denormalise smokers, the inappropriate nature of 'Snipers could soon sniff out smoking' never occurred to them. Smokers, you see, are easy targets. Literally.

My advice? Email the editor (expressing your reaction) and write to your MP (pointing out that publicly-funded campaigns such as 'If you smoke you stink' have created this culture of intolerance) but I really don't see what this has to with the police.

Update: Alan Dee's article is no longer available online on Hemel Today. See here.

Not sure about the digital edition of the Herald & Post.

More to follow.