Tuesday
Feb222011

Travel sickness

Last week, following visits to Brussels and Madrid, I had a six-hour round trip to Bristol to film a 30-second soundbite. (The actual recording took about ten minutes.)

Pah! My UK record is a ten-hour round trip to record a similar bite-sized interview for a local TV programme.

After travelling from Cambridgeshire to London I caught a train from Paddington and arrived in Plymouth shortly after lunch. I took a taxi to the pub where the programme was being filmed, hung around for an hour or so, recorded my piece, got a taxi back to the station, and arrived home via London some five hours later.

In the same vein, my all-time record is the time it took to fly to Dublin, stay overnight and fly home for what turned out to be a 20-second comment on Sky News.

For the remainder of this week I shall be in Scotland, but not on business. After all that travelling, I need a little rest and recuperation.

Feel free to talk among yourselves.

Monday
Feb212011

What's become of ASH?

Last week I intended to write a post that began, 'Have you noticed how quiet ASH has been of late?'

I refer, of course, to the London-based operation. You couldn't keep ASH Scotland quiet if you bound and gagged all 27 members of staff and left them on a remote Hebridean island without electricity (or a boat).

In England, however, there has barely been a peep out of our old sparring partners. They haven't issued a press release since November and their website hasn't been updated for what seems like ages. (To be fair, they're not alone in this. Forest is currently developing a new site, hence the lack of activity on our old one.)

Last year it was noticeable too that other tobacco control groups were doing more and more of what I like to call ASH's "dirty work".

Anyway, several theories are doing the rounds, including the preposterous suggestion that Deborah Arnott & Co are too busy drafting the new tobacco control paper for the Department of Health.

I couldn't possibly comment.

On Thursday, however, something stirred. According to Campaign, ASH seem to believe that the number of people who quit smoking is linked directly to the amount of public money spent on anti-smoking advertisements. (See ASH blames adspend freeze for failures to quit smoking.)

The advertising industry will no doubt endorse this view because it wants the money, but it's not shared by everyone. Chris Snowdon, for example, has this to say: How thick do ASH think we are? he asks.

I think I know the answer.

Monday
Feb212011

The cost of tobacco control

Forest Eireann's Smokers' Manifesto, published ahead of the Irish general election this coming Friday, attracted a fair bit of interest last week.

FE spokesman John Mallon was interviewed by several Irish radio stations, and the manifesto was reported in four national newspapers including two broadsheets, the Irish Times and Irish Examiner, and two tabloids, the Irish editions of the Sun and Daily Star.

There was also a substantial piece in the Cork Independent: Smokers are voters too.

When we wrote the manifesto I had forgotten that the outgoing Irish government not only introduced a tobacco display ban, it also banned the sale of ten-packs.

It is fairly clear that not only does banning ten-packs have no effect on smoking rates (youth or otherwise), it is actually counter-productive.

Writing on the Forest Eireann blog today, John explains how ten-packs enabled him to cut down from 40-a-day, while the subsequent ban on ten-packs merely encouraged him to use roll-ups instead. Not only has this saved him a small fortune, it has cost the Irish Exchequer thousands of euros.

No wonder the Irish economy is in such a mess.

Sunday
Feb202011

The one and only Gyles Brandreth

Enjoyed seeing Gyles Brandreth on stage in Hertford last night.

It was the final performance of The One to One Show that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last year and has been on tour since October, playing 45 theatres up and down the country.

I am, as I have mentioned before, a huge fan of Brandreth. I was lucky enough to interview him some years ago, and he lived up to my expectations.

It wasn't just his charm, wit and intelligence. He was remarkably generous with his time, agreeing to see me not once but twice, and when I read his diary last year I was bowled over by his energy, his joie de vivre, and his willingness to try all sorts of endeavours, even if one or two result in failure.

One sensed last night that he was beginning to flag after such a long tour, but it was still a very entertaining couple of hours.

After the show he sat in the foyer, chatting and signing copies of Something Sensational to Read in the Train: The Diary of a Lifetime. I have a copy but my son bought one for himself and after a false start (Brandreth initially spelt Ruari's name wrong before correcting it), the dedication now reads:

For Ruar-y-i – I thought I could spell. At least this makes this book unique. With best wishes, Gyles Brandreth.

If Ruari learns anything from the book, I hope it will be to take every opportunity that comes his way, and to see humour in everything, however bad the situation may seem at the time.

See also: Gyles Brandreth: The One to One Show (Daily Telegraph)

Saturday
Feb192011

The NHS: a true story

The BBC this week reported that the NHS is 'failing to treat elderly with care and respect'. The story also ran in several newspapers.

The Health Service Ombudsman came to the conclusion after carrying out an in-depth review of 10 cases.

I'm not sure how the ombudsman can make such a sweeping statement based on so few cases. Nevertheless, I can relate to the story, and here's why.

Ten days before Christmas my father, 80, fell and broke his hip. He was taken to hospital and given a partial hip replacement.

It is normal, I believe, for patients to be sent home within five days of such an operation. My father's situation is not normal. Apart from his age, he had a heart transplant 12 years ago, and for the past two years he has been on dialysis three times a week.

So we didn't expect him home immediately. No-one, however, thought he would still be in hospital nine weeks later. In this instance - and it's not the first time I have witnessed it - the problem is not the initial treatment, it's the aftercare, or the lack of it.

As a result of his accident, which has weakened him considerably, it is difficult for my father to get in and out of bed without the help of at least one trained nurse, and he can only walk very slowly with the aid of a Zimmer frame. Without the regular physiotherapy he was told he would get - and hasn't - his recovery has been painfully slow.

Anyway, the following story speaks volumes. For the past few weeks my father has been sharing a ward with a delightful man called 'Stan' (not his real name). Last week my father made his way, slowly and with the help of his Zimmer frame, to the toilet down the corridor. Somehow he locked himself in and rang the alarm bell.

No response.

He rang it again. Still no response.

Stan, however, did hear it and from his bed bellowed for a nurse to come and help.

No response.

Stan shouted again. Still no response.

Confined to his bed, Stan thought for a moment. And rang the police.

Slightly befuddled, he couldn't remember the name of the hospital, but the police worked it out, contacted the hospital, and eventually someone went to my father's aid.

It sounds funny but that wasn't the end of it. The following day Stan and my father were both given a severe telling off from the person in charge of the ward!

Thankfully, my father is due home on Monday. I shall be keeping my fingers crossed for Stan.

Friday
Feb182011

Paris fights to remain European capital of smoking

Maintaining my recent European theme, Peter Thurgood has written an article for The Free Society entitled Spot the difference: how Paris is coming to terms with the public smoking ban.

The first thing I noticed was that almost every bar/restaurant, had outside seating, with patio heaters and a plastic awning around it. The second thing I noticed were the ashtrays on every table. Could this be the headquarters of the French Resistance? Whatever it was, I was determined to enter, and hopefully join up.

Inside the area cordoned off by the plastic awning, it was comfortable and warm, and the waitress accepted me and my smoking habit with a friendly smile and no irritating hand waving in front of her face, which we seem to experience in the UK. Other customers came and went, some smoked, some didn’t, but the atmosphere at all times was warm and friendly, just the opposite to the intolerance smokers are subjected to here in the UK.

I went to a number of other restaurants, bars, and cafes and, at a guess, I would say that approximately 80 per cent of them had this same type of plastic awning surrounding their outside seating area. In other words, the needs and comforts of smokers are well and truly catered for. Also catered for are the needs of the non-smokers who have the whole of the inside of the building ... in which to enjoy their self-imposed segregation, if they so wish.

I have written about this before, but Peter's article reminds me of the time that Forest sent a delegation of smokers to Paris in order to escape No Smoking Day in Britain.

We chose Paris because, in those days, the French capital thoroughly deserved the title 'European capital of smoking'. Our little group - which included Lord Harris of High Cross and Judith Hatton, authors of Murder A Cigarette, and Bob Shields of the Daily Record - travelled by Eurostar (which still had smoking coaches) and was met at Gare du Nord by representatives from a smokers' rights group in France.

Lunch took place at a restaurant used, appropriately, by the Resistance during the Second World War, and the entire day was a great success.

Whether Paris remains the European capital of smoking is arguable. In 2011 Prague and Budapest are obvious rivals, but read Peter's article and make up your own mind. Comments welcome.

PS. I wish I could find Bob Shields' report. With photographs, it occupied a double-page spread and was very, very funny. Unfortunately it was eleven years ago and I can't find a copy anywhere.

Thursday
Feb172011

Belgium shows the way forward

I was in Brussels on Monday.

I go there several times a year and I can report that everything was completely normal. The trains ran on time, a taxi took me to and from my hotel without mishap. The shops were doing a roaring trade in (what else?) Belgian chocolates, and it was business as usual.

Today, however, I read that Belgium hits world record for lack of government (EU Observer).

Radio Free Europe confirms that:

At midnight tonight, Belgium will claim the world record for the number of days it has been without an agreement on a government, overtaking the previous record holder, Iraq.

February 18 will mark 250 days since June's inconclusive national elections in which the diametrically opposed New Flemish Alliance and the Francophone Socialist Party won the most seats.

Imagine the United Kingdom without a government for a similar period. Actually, I can. In fact, I think that government, especially Big Government, is over-rated and we would be much better off without it.

The idea that without a proper government a developed Western country cannot go about its daily business is nonsense, and insulting to all law-abiding citizens.

Like the Belgians we would just get on with it, I'm sure.

So, like many people today, I shall drink a toast to Belgium, the country that doesn't have or, indeed, need a government.

See also: Belgium – eight months with no government (Independent on Sunday)

Thursday
Feb172011

Push for outdoor smoking ban begins

Following New York's decision to ban smoking in parks and squares, Five News last night reported the result of a YouGov/Five News survey on the subject.

"Some countries are clamping down on lighting up in the open and our survey reveals that 43 per cent of people in the UK think the smoking ban should be extended to all outdoor public spaces."

The Government, said Five News, has no plans to follow suit yet but does say that breathing in other people's smoke increases your risk of getting lung cancer by 24 per cent. "And our survey did reveal some pretty strong feelings."

Member of the public:

"It's breathing it in, or the smell that gets on your clothes. If you've got children in a buggy ... it's straight in their face. I think it's really inconsiderate."

Interestingly, the Roy Castle Foundation appears to be against an outdoor smoking ban. Interviewed by Five News, youth project manager Lisa Gill said, "Our concern is that parents and carers who are maybe motivated to protect their children within their homes by smoking outside would then move back into the home and start smoking in front of their children."

The suggestion by Five News that "breathing in other people's smoke increases your risk of getting lung cancer by 24 per cent" does of course refer to exposure to other people's smoke in a confined space over many, many years. It has no relevance whatsoever to smoking outdoors.

In truth, the risk of non-smokers getting lung cancer is so small that an increased risk of 24 per cent is, in etymological terms, statistically insignificant. To be significant the "increased risk" would have to be in the region of 200-300 per cent. Perhaps someone should tell Five News.

PS. Five News did contact Forest for an interview. Unfortunately I was in Brussels and unavailable.

Update: The YouGov website reports that "51 per cent support the idea of banning smoking in outdoors public places, such as open parks, beaches and pedestrian squares". Report here (but not the actual survey or the questions asked).