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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."


The benefits of gambling

Tonight, at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, there's an event to mark the publication of Gambling: A Healthy Bet, a new report by the Democracy Institute.

Gambling is good for us, say the authors, Patrick Basham and John Luik. Writing for The Free Society today, Basham points out that:

As of 2002, only one peer-reviewed scholarly journal article had been dedicated solely to the beneficial impacts of gambling on individuals. And there were no studies that dealt specifically with the potentially beneficial impacts of gambling on the gambler's proximal environment, defined as spouse, children, family, friends, and life at work, at school, or in the local community.

Gambling should be viewed for what it is. That is, commonplace behaviour practised responsibly by the vast majority of people in our society.

See: Is gambling the new opium of the people?

My own experience of gambling for money is limited to a handful of horse races and never spending more than I could afford to lose (usually around £5). I was never attracted to fruit machines (they're called one-armed bandits for a reason) and the current obsession with poker leaves me bemused. But good luck to those who enjoy it.

In fact I was furious when the Labour Government reversed its decision to allow a super casino to be opened in Britain. If I remember there was a terrific battle between Blackpool and Manchester to host the first (and only) one but the question that should have been asked was, why should super casinos be restricted to just one city in the entire country? Like smoking and drinking or going on expensive foreign holidays, no-one holds a gun to your head and says you have to do it. People do have a choice.

Of course some people get addicted to gambling, just as others get addicted to nicotine or alcohol and the consequences can be serious. But there are millions of people who get a great deal of pleasure from gambling (and smoking and drinking) and we have one in our midst who enjoys all three. Take a bow, Dave Atherton.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to this evening. I may even place a bet on who will be there.

PS. Looking forward to seeing Patrick Basham. I haven't seen him since we made our escape from Bangalore at three o'clock in the morning. I didn't record that story here but it involved several armed guards, a very helpful BA official (operating unofficially) and ... No, I'm sorry, I can't. What happened in Bangalore stays in Bangalore.


Goodbye nanny state, hello nudge

The Free Society website has been dormant for a while. My fault entirely. I had intended to appoint a commissioning editor after our series of debates last summer but I got side-tracked.

Anyway, I am currently speaking to potential editors and contributors and I hope that, very soon, we will have a new team of writers and, within a few weeks, the site will feature at least one new post every day.

In the meantime I am pleased to welcome our first new contributor. David Bowden works for the Institute of Ideas. He also writes for Spiked. Writing for The Free Society today, David comments:

How long ago those heady summer months now feel, with Britain emerging from the 13-year nightmare of creeping New Labour authoritarianism, heralded by a fresh-faced Coalition Government promising a new era of freedom. Yet, as we all scrambled around searching for appropriate terms to describe the new politics, it was apparent that another re-branding was well under way. Goodbye New Labour’s nanny state; hello to the Lib-Cons’ nudge.

Full article: Goodbye nanny state, hello nudge


Scottish Government delays tobacco display ban

The Scottish Government has announced that the introduction of the tobacco display ban in Scotland is being delayed from October 1, 2011, until further notice due to a legal appeal by Imperial Tobacco.

I have issued this response on behalf of Forest:

"We welcome the announcement by the Scottish Government and hope that this marks the beginning of the end for the tobacco display ban in Scotland.

"Banning the display of tobacco in shops is an illiberal measure that will do little to reduce youth smoking rates.

"It's an act of censorship that is designed to denormalise tobacco and stigmatise adults who choose to consume a perfectly legal product.

"Tobacco control policies should be evidence based. There is no evidence that a display ban will achieve anything apart from costing small retailers money that they cannot afford and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of law-abiding consumers."

See ASH Scotland's response.


Hong Kong phooey

I was invited by RTHK Radio 3 in Hong Kong to take part in a discussion about smoking and whether it should be banned in all outdoor areas.

It would be broadcast live, they said, between 8.30 and 9.00am, which translates as 12.30 to 1.00am in the UK.

That was last night. In the event the discussion went on until 1.30. It was prompted, they said, by an article in a Hong Kong newspaper headlined 'Workers face demands for smoking ban outside offices'.

Office workers who smoke near the entrances to their buildings make the air quality more than three times worse, researchers found. And there are now calls in Hong Kong for the ban on smoking inside workplaces to be extended to the immediate area outside.

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit in Canada measured pollution levels in a busy street in downtown Toronto when no smokers were around. Then they compared them with measurements outside 28 entrances to office buildings in the same area when workers were smoking.

The density of PM2.5 air pollutant particles was more than three times higher when up to four people were smoking within nine metres of building entrances. And the density was 20 times higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline figure for "clean" air.

Toronto researcher Dr Pamela Kaufman said: "Exposure to smoking at entrances to buildings tends to be brief and transient ... [but] there is  increasing scientific evidence that even short-term exposure can result in adverse health effects for people with sensitive cardiovascular and respiratory systems."

She urged governments to consider banning smoking within nine metres of building entrances.

Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of the University of Hong Kong's school of public health, agreed. "Even when people move outdoors to smoke, the pollutants can still be blown back indoors."

He said the level of pollutants would be especially high in the busy streets of Hong Kong, where many people smoked in narrow alleys surrounded by tall buildings, which were badly ventilated. Lam said he fully supported a smoking ban outside building entrances.

"Many non-smokers need to pass through entrances of office buildings daily. If there is a ban, they would not be forced to inhale toxic smoke," he said.

Clear The Air committee chairman James Middleton also supported the idea of making building entrances smoke-free zones.

He noted that the ventilation ducts of many buildings were right above entrances. It meant that even when smokers stood outside, the second-hand smoke was still sucked indoors.

My fellow guests last night were Prof Lam Tai-hing, quoted above, and Dr Kwok Ka Ki. Honestly, there was no debating with these people. As far as they are concerned tobacco smoke is toxic and even the slightest exposure is dangerous to non-smokers.

The presenters tried to play devil's advocate but refused to accept anything I said about passive smoking because I am not a "medical expert", unlike Dr Ka Ki and Prof Tai-hing.

My argument that we shouldn't believe everything we hear from so-called "experts" fell on death ears. Talk about banging your head against a brick wall.

All in all, it was a rather tiring way to end a long day.