Smoking, censorship and New York City

New York is often lauded as one of the world's great cities.

Not in my book. I've only been there once but I'm in no hurry to go back. OK, I chose the worst possible time to go. NYC in July is uncomfortably hot - so hot, in fact, that the open air theatre in Central Park was closed because no-one wanted to sit outside, even after dusk.

But, stifling heat apart, nothing about the city grabbed me apart from Ellis Island and the remarkable story of American immigration. Ironically many were driven to America to escape social and economic repression in Europe. How, I wonder, would they view New York today?

Brendan O'Neil, editor of the online magazine spiked, recently drew my attention to the second of a series of reports he wrote from NYC.

It was entitled When smoking becomes freedom of expression and it highlighted the fact that NYC theatre companies are now prohibited from featuring real cigarettes in their plays. If any character smokes they have to use the herbal variety, although producers can apply for a waiver.

Brendan wrote:

When George Bernard Shaw’s play about prostitution, Mrs Warren’s Profession, was first shown in New York in 1905, the police invaded the theatre, arrested the director and his entire cast, threw them into a cell for a night, and charged them with ‘offending public decency’.

A new production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, at the Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street, is potentially politically combustible for a different reason - not because it features an unapologetic madam, but because one of the characters smokes. That’s as likely to outrage today’s defenders of decency as much as Shaw’s poke in the eye to sexual hypocrisy rattled yesteryear’s.

"Smoking is key to Shaw’s play," Brendan noted. Sadly he believes the producers "may have indulged in self-censorship".

They show Vivie [a leading character] smoking only once, but she puffs more frequently than that in Shaw’s original text. Maybe they wanted to limit the number of times they subjected the audience to the herbal whiff.

Other New York theatre producers have applied for that waiver which might, if some bureaucrat in City Hall is feeling generous, allow their actors to smoke real cigarettes on stage. But they’ve found the process art-stoppingly dispiriting. Abbie Strassler, general manager of the 2005 Broadway revival of The Odd Couple, in which the character Oscar chomps almost non-stop on a cigar, applied for such a wavier, and the whole process took four months. Shaw would be outraged.

The article concludes:

It is extraordinary to think that in a city as loud and boisterous as this one, where perfect strangers think nothing of telling you what they think of your sweatshirt (I speak from experience), an actor can’t have a real smoke on stage without City Hall’s explicit permission. In his ironic apology for Mrs W, Shaw said: ‘All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current concepts, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships. There is the whole case against censorships in a nutshell.’ I’ll smoke to that.

Me too.


The week that was

Stories and articles you may have missed:

1. 'Pub at home' beats the smoking ban (Croydon Today)
2. Bhutan monk faces jail for anti-smoking law violation (BBC News)
3. In defence of the nanny state (BBC News Magazine)

From the blogs:

4. And you thought the smoking ban was bad! (ASI)
5. A smoking ban does not make a nanny state (Path To Tyranny)
6. How to play the game (Smoking Out The Truth)

And finally ...

7. Childhood obesity may be caused by working moms‎ (Daily Health Report)
8. School lunches may lead to childhood obesity (Daily Health Report)
9. Central heating may be linked to obesity‎ (Afro American)
10. Loneliness, a killer that threatens obesity‎ (Times of India)

'May', 'may', 'may' - do you think they're trying to tell us something?


New York betrays the land of the free

You may have read that New York city council has voted to ban smoking in the city’s parks, beaches and public squares.

Supporters of the new measures say it will help improve the health of New Yorkers and prevent non-smokers from having to breathe other people's tobacco smoke. The Telegraph has the story here: New York bans smoking in parks, beaches and public squares.

John Mallon, spokesman for Forest Eireann, has been doing some interviews on the subject and we have just released his response:

“It’s nonsense to suggest that non-smokers are at risk from people smoking in the open air.

“Banning smoking in parks and squares has nothing to do with the health of non-smokers. It’s designed to force people to quit smoking whatever the consequences for civil liberties.

“It is completely unreasonable to ban smoking in all public places, indoors and out.

“Tobacco is a legal product and a huge proportion of what people spend on tobacco goes to the government. If the government wants our money we have to be allowed to smoke somewhere, and not just at home.

“We encourage people to smoke responsibly, but fining people if they light up outside is a step too far.

“Unfortunately anti-smoking zealots won’t be happy until smoking is outlawed completely. If that happens people will still smoke but in an uncontrolled environment and the main beneficiaries will be criminal gangs and the manufacturers of illicit cigarettes.”

I think they have a name for that. Oh yes, Prohibition.

I'll comment further when I get a moment.

See also: NYC bans smoking ... in parks (Big Brother Watch)

PS. Rob Lyons, deputy editor of Spiked, has just commented on my Facebook page: "This is a country where you can be arrested for not crossing the road in a state-approved place or for having a drink when you're 20 years old. Bloomberg seems to be just tidying up a few loose ends."


How I almost became a tree-hugger

My eye was drawn yesterday to a feature on the BBC News website: Forest fight: why do we get so upset about trees?.

I was wondering about this myself. Personally, I don't have a problem with the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land. I'm all for "protecting England's ancient woodlands" but I'm not sure that Big Government can do this any better than the private sector.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that the private sector will do a far better job of it so, as far as I'm concerned, sell, sell, sell - unless of course it costs the taxpayer money to do so, as an impact assessment by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is suggesting. (Then again, after many years in the lobbying business, I am extremely dubious about "impact assessments" that are frequently based less on facts than on wild guesstimates and are often politically motivated.)

Anyway, I mention this because trees are a sore point in Castle Park, Cambridge, where Forest has an office. The following report appeared in a local newspaper in October last year:

Investigation into process that allowed tree felling
A probe has been launched into how 12 mature trees at a Cambridge business park were approved for felling.

Cambridge City Council is to examine the processes which allowed its officers to approve the felling of an avenue of false acacia trees at Castle Business Park without consulting councillors. The trees outside Godwin, Camimus and Sheraton House in the park off Castle Hill were protected by a tree preservation order for many years.

But that is no longer in place and Savills, which runs the park, and landowner Phoenix Life, want to remove the trees, claiming they are diseased, and replace them with young saplings.

However, the plans sparked furious opposition from workers at the park, who say the firms have exaggerated the health and safety risks posed by the trees.

They have commissioned their own report by a tree surgeon, who says the trees can be safely managed for many years to come.

The council will now examine whether it needs to revise its rules on tree felling, which saw the Castle Park decision made by officers under delegated powers, rather than through the planning system.

In December a second report was published:

Campaigners’ plea to axe tree felling plan
Workers at Cambridge’s Castle Park Business Park are opposed to plans to fell a dozen mature trees.

Savills, which runs the park, and Phoenix Life, which owns it, want to remove 12 false acacias and replace them with young saplings.

The avenue of trees, which has been outside Godwin, Caminus and Sheraton House for years, was protected by tree preservation orders. But they are no longer in place and both firms want the city council tree team to remove them, claiming they are diseased and a health and safety risk.

Tenants on the park have accused them of over-exaggerating the risks.

Mike Snelling, from Autodesk, is one of dozens of employees to sign a petition – and he ordered an independent tree surgeon from Waterbeach-based Acacia Tree Surgery to assess the trees.

Cliff Freed, who carried out the assessment, said in a report: “The trees in their current state can be maintained safely if they are monitored annually.

“We would suggest these false acacias are retained and maintained.”

In a letter to all tenants on the park, Mr Snelling said: “Our initial advice, from a qualified tree surgeon, is our trees can be safely managed for many years to come.

“However, so we never have to lose them all at once, we propose a gradual replacement of a few trees at a time.

“This sustainable plan safeguards the trees and our environment for the indefinite future.”

Tenants are holding regular meetings to discuss the trees’ future.

But a Savills spokeswoman said the city council has approved plans to fell seven trees.

She said: “Acting on behalf of its client, Savills appointed a qualified tree surgeon to provide professional advice on 12 diseased trees following health and safety fears.

“A replacement plan for the trees was devised that has been approved by the local council.

“Following the appeal from tenants, Savills arranged for the tree surgeon to revisit the site and consent has now been given by the council for seven trees to be felled and replaced in the first instance with the remaining five being reviewed in June 2011.”

Accompanying this report was a photograph of tenants hugging the trees outside our Castle Park offices as if their lives depended on it.

I was away that day but if I had been there I would have happily hugged a tree too because (a) I rather like having mature trees outside my office, and (b) I'm a sucker for a good photo opp.

Anyway, they're gone now, chopped down over Christmas (when everyone was away) and replaced with a handful of tiny saplings.

On the bright side, at least I'm no longer interrupted by the frequent sound of chainsaws hacking away. Seriously, I could bet money - and win - that as soon as I began a live radio interview a chainsaw would roar into life directly outside our first floor window.

Trees - can't live with them, can't live without them.


Quiet, please!

I am currently on a train returning from Edinburgh. I am in the 'quiet' carriage. Sadly, while mobiles are banned, the rules don't exclude screaming babies and small children. Seriously - get me out of here!


Illicit trade: how government works

I attended a conference yesterday on the subject of illicit trade. Delegates included civil servants, trading standards officers, tobacco lobbyists and representatives of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), to name a few.

Venue was the National Liberal Club which used to have a portrait of Winston Churchill, painted by Ernest Townsend in 1915, in the foyer. (I think it's still there. I didn't look.) Townsend was my paternal grandmother's brother which makes him my, er, great uncle.

Anyway, speakers included Mark Garnier MP, Treasury Select Committee; Andy Leggett, deputy director, Alohol and Tobacco Policy, HMRC; Joe Barrett, a member of Retailers Against Smuggling, an Irish campaign group; and Peter Astley, Public Protection Manager (I kid you not), Warrington Borough Council.

It was during Astley's presentation - during which he talked of "coordinated enforcement activity", "improving [the] intelligence base", "funding specialist teams", not to mention more scanners and using prison sentencing to tackle tobacco smuggling - that I finally became so exasperated that I stood up, introduced myself, and pointed out that there was an elephant in the room that no-one was addressing.

The number one reason for the booming black market in tobacco, I said, was the high level of taxation. "We all know that the Department of Health is driving tobacco control policy in the UK. What," I asked, "is Peter, and the stakeholders represented in this room, doing to lobby the DH to support a reduction - not a freeze - in tobacco taxation to bring it into line with other EU countries?"

Silence. Astley ignored the question and instead mumbled something about his priority being "smoking prevention".

So there you have it. Truth is, there is a very simple way that government could address the problem of tobacco smuggling - which costs the Treasury hundreds of millions (if not billions) of pounds every year - but they won't consider it while the tobacco control lobby is pulling the strings.

Meanwhile criminal gangs - who are happy to sell cigarettes to anyone, including children - reap the dividends while officials such as Peter Astley propose spending even more public money tackling a problem of the government's own making.

Nice work if you can get it.


That was the week


Jailhouse crocks

The (Glasgow) Herald has this exclusive story: Passive smoking ‘victims’ to challenge prison service.

Prisoners forced to share their cells with smokers have lodged compensation claims against the Scottish Prison Service.

Tony Kelly, the lawyer for Adelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, has, in the past, brought a number of successful cases on behalf of prisoners over issues such as slopping out.

He told The Herald that he was now pursuing cases on behalf of about half-a-dozen Scottish prisoners or former inmates who were non-smokers but had been exposed to tobacco smoke through being required to share a cell with smokers.

The cases were already live, he said, and the first of these would come to court within a matter of months.

I accept that if you are a non-smoker it might not be very nice to be stuck in a small cell with others who are smoking, but a direct cause of ill health?

One would expect the former inmates, at least, to have to prove that their health has suffered as a result of sharing a cell with smokers. Yes, there have been out-of-court settlements (a cheaper option for employers than going to court, even if they win), but I am not aware of a single case in the UK where someone has proved successfully in court that their illness was caused by other people's tobacco smoke.

For that reason alone this could be interesting. On the hand, it wouldn't surprise me if the Scottish Government chose not to fight the issue and agreed instead to burden the taxpayer with the cost of compensation. After all, to do otherwise would defeat their argument that passive smoking is a serious health risk, wouldn't it?

Update: Brian Monteith, who brought the story to my attention, writes: "I think this will run and run. It is of course a direct consequence of governments lazily accepting junk science to justify their control freakery. Now they will have to pay for the mistake - only we pick up the tab in the long run."