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Fringe benefits

Pleased to announce that Forest will be hosting two fringe events at the Conservative conference in Birmingham.

The first, ‘Should smoking be consigned to history?’, is the first time Forest has shared a platform with Philip Morris since the tobacco company announced that it wanted to stop selling cigarettes in the UK by 2030.

Chaired by Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas and a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, panellists are me, Mark MacGregor (Philip Morris UK), Rae Maile (Cenkos Securities) and Chris Snowdon (Institute of Economic Affairs).

The second event is a reprise of the debate we hosted at the IEA in London last year. Subject: ’The most pleasurable nicotine delivery device in the world’.

Is it the combustible cigarette? Or the cigar? The pipe, perhaps? Or maybe it’s snus (still illegal to sell in the UK) or that new kid on the block, the e-cigarette.

Contestants on Tuesday October 2 include Claire Fox, Madeline Grant (IEA), political consultant and former MSP Brian Monteith, parliamentary researcher Mark Oates, and James Price (TaxPayers Alliance).

Austin Court, the venue for both meetings, is outside the secure zone so everyone is welcome to join us, no passes required.

Should be fun.


From Bournemouth to Blackpool, the best and worst party conference locations

The 2018 party conference season has begun.

The Lib Dems (remember them?) are kicking things off in Brighton (15-18 September), to be followed by Ukip (Birmingham, 21-22 September).

Labour then pitch up in Manchester (23-26 September) before the Conservatives meet in Birmingham (30 Sept-3 October).

The season ends with the Greens in Bristol (5-7 October) and the SNP in Glasgow (7-9 October).

I can feel you losing interest already so I won’t labour the subject other than to say that I’m sad that my favourite conference location - Bournemouth - is no longer on the rota for the larger (Labour and Conservative) conferences.

Two years ago I nominated Forest’s top ten conference events.

Last year we began to seriously review the value of hosting events at party conference - be it a drinks reception or panel discussion - and this year it was a close call whether it was worth the effort.

Ironically it’s a difficult habit to break and so, tomorrow, I’ll post details of the two meetings we’re hosting at this year’s Conservative conference in Birmingham.

Labour and the Lib Dems aren’t worth the trouble, if I’m honest, although we may reconsider organising an event at the Labour conference if Corbyn wins the next election!

But first, here are my favourite (and least favourite) conference locations:

What’s not to like? The town is fine if nothing special but the beach is as good as it gets at any UK seaside resort. Bournemouth is reasonably easy to get to by car and rail (if not exactly quick) and there’s even a small airport where I once caught a flight to Edinburgh, returning the next day to pick up my car. Conference-wise it’s very delegate friendly because there are lots of hotels and b&bs within easy walking distance of the conference centre. And at this time of year I can’t think of anything nicer than wandering down to the beach in late autumn sunshine. Or having breakfast, mid morning coffee or lunch at WestBeach seaside restaurant. Or enjoying the crispiest chilli beef at the wonderfully named Ocean Palace Restaurant.

Good: Sea views, the beach, WestBeach seaside restaurant
Bad: Too many hotels lacking modern amenities (including air-conditioning!)

There’s much to admire about Brighton. The Royal Pavilion may attract the tourists but there’s far more to the city than the former royal residence. Arriving in Brighton in 2005 for a Forest event, David Hockney praised the light that reflects off the sea and the famous white buildings. As a conference venue however Brighton doesn’t work for me. The conference centre is ugly as hell and the famous Grand Hotel (where I was drinking hours before the IRA bomb exploded in 1983) is an unhappy reminder of a shocking event. On the other hand I have very happy memories of more recent conferences that will live with me forever.

Good: The light!
Bad: The beach - a good beach needs sand not pebbles!

Friends insist it’s great place to live and work but I’m not entirely sold on Manchester. It has some impressive Victorian architecture but there’s something rather austere about the place. The monstrously gothic town hall is a case in point. I’m biased because Forest is banned from hosting events in the town hall due to our tobacco industry connections, but I’m not sure I would want to organise an event there anyway. It’s the sort of place where only the Addams Family could feel at home. Conference-wise however Manchester is a significant improvement on Blackpool, which it replaced, because the hotels are, in general, significantly better. And while the weather may be very similar, at least there’s more protection from the wind and the rain!

Good: Some good hotels and restaurants
Bad: Above average rainfall, Andy Burnham

Birmingham is an easy drive from my home in Cambridgeshire and my daughter is at university there so I’ve become a fairly regular visitor. She loves it but the city’s charms have largely eluded me so far. Like Manchester there is a reasonable choice of hotels and some fine restaurants but the much-touted canals have limited appeal. It’s certainly not Venice although, given what we hear about Venice being overwhelmed by tourists, that may be a good thing. The ICC however is a fine conference centre with excellent facilities and plenty of bars and restaurants within easy walking distance.

Good: Easy access by train or car, some good restaurants
Bad: Aesthetically challenging city centre if not downright ugly in parts

Apart from a couple of visits in the Eighties (one to Anfield), I came to Liverpool quite late, but I like it. In my experience the people are extremely friendly and the location of the conference centre in the rejuvenated Albert Dock area works pretty well. True, it isolates delegates a bit from the city centre, especially if you stay in one of the new hotels close to the conference centre and overlooking the old docks, but I like the feeling of space and the fact that it overlooks the Mersey. When I’ve been there I’ve often considered going back for a weekend break. The fact that I haven’t probably says something but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Good: Friendly locals
Bad: I genuinely can’t think of anything, and not for want of trying!

I had never been to Doncaster until Ukip (and Nigel Farage) rolled into town a few years ago. The conference was at the racecourse on the edge of town. It was all a bit surreal. On the first night we had dinner in town and walked out of the restaurant to find police cars zipping around, blue lights flashing. I haven’t been back.

Good: The racecourse was quite nice
Bad: Friday nights

My first visit, as a teenager, was to see the Illuminations. I was so impressed I returned a year later with a friend and a tent. That was when my brief love affair with Blackpool ended. Today I can’t find a single good word to say about the town apart from the house prices which seem incredibly cheap (according to the episode of Location, Location, Location I watched last week). There must be a reason for that and my advice is to avoid the centre at all costs and stay a short drive down the coast in Lytham St Annes because everything in Blackpool is mostly dreadful. Thankfully it’s no longer on the conference rota and for most of us that’s a blessing. Sorry.

Good: Nothing that comes to mind
Bad: Everything.


Was that it? Smoke-Free Index fails to ignite media interest

On Sunday I had a convivial chat with a woman from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

Talking over dinner I was led to understand there would be a ‘MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT’ at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum that took place in London this week.

I was also told that her boss, Derek Yach, who was addressing the conference, was going to be featured in the Guardian on Thursday.

I was intrigued. What could this ‘major announcement’ be? After all, what could possibly top last year’s coup when, on the eve of GTNF 2017 in New York, Yach announced he was launching the Foundation for a Smoke Free World with Philip Morris International committing $1 billion to the project over twelve years?

I racked my brain and eagerly anticipated what the great man might say to capture the media’s attention.

Sad to report, Derek Yach’s ‘major announcement’ was a complete damp squib. All it amounted to was a proposal for a ‘Smoke-Free Index’ that will monitor the industry’s progress towards a ‘smoke-free’ world.

Big deal.

You can read the press release here but check out the vainglorious headline (and copyright symbol):

Foundation for a Smoke-Free World to Impact Tobacco Industry and Nicotine Ecosystem and Drive Change Through the Smoke-Free Index©

In the event not even the Guardian could be persuaded that the Smoke-Free Index© initiative was newsworthy.

The fact that the Foundation considered it a ‘major announcement’ suggests an almost delusional degree of self-importance.

Who does Yach think he is - Michael Bloomberg?

I do wonder what PMI’s competitors think of the company funding a body that intends to hold their feet to the fire, forever monitoring their activities in the name of some ‘smoke-free’ utopia.

I wonder too if by committing a billion dollars to the Foundation, PMI has created an albatross that could seriously embarrass both the company and its investors in the years ahead.

For example, if their public statements are anything to go by, senior PMI executives clearly think their company is leading the race towards a ‘better’, smoke-free future.

They boast that they are disrupting not just the industry but their own company.

But what happens if and when PMI lags behind some of its rivals? (Talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words.) Will the Foundation’s Smoke-Free Index point the finger at the company that is bankrolling it?

If it is to maintain any credibility it will have to and PMI will have to suck it up because the company has committed to giving the Foundation $80 million a year until 2029. (Imagine the outcry if they abandoned the project before that date.)

Meanwhile other leading tobacco companies - all of whom are engaged in selling and developing risk reduction products and have no reason to bow to PMI - face having their activities publicly analysed by a body funded exclusively by one of their major global rivals.

Anyway, in a perfect piece of scheduling, Derek Yach was followed on to the GTNF stage by Peter Nixon, MD of Philip Morris UK.

A self-confessed ‘salesman’, Nixon gave an assured, polished performance. If nothing else, he and his media team are masters of the art of the soundbite, as these subsequent tweets illustrate:

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, there was no opportunity to ask questions of either Nixon or Yach which would have been nice.

The good news is that while Philip Morris may have abandoned consumers who want to smoke, other tobacco companies haven’t.

Another keynote speaker at GTNF was Suzanne Wise, senior vice president of corporate development of JTI.

On Thursday, following an interview on Sky News, JTI tweeted:

Well said.

Update: The Guardian did run a story from GTNF but it was inspired not by Derek Yach but by another New York based speaker:

Addressing a 300-strong audience of tobacco and vaping industry representatives, Helen Redmond, an expert in substance use at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, said people in poor countries should not be priced out of nicotine-based products that could potentially help them to quit smoking.

Redmond compared the medicinal qualities of nicotine with cannabis and stressed “the need to get vaping to the poorest, who need it most”.

“It’s a human rights issue – as a harm reduction device, prices need to come down,” she said. “Nicotine is not a dirty drug, it helps with depression and anxiety.”

See: Affordable vaping for smokers in poor countries branded 'a human rights issue' (Guardian)


Money, money, money

Champagne corks will be popping in London and the North East.

In November last year I wrote:

For the best part of a decade [ASH] has received over £1.5 million of our hard-earned cash.

That may be small beer compared to ASH Scotland which has swallowed upwards of £800,000 a year from the taxpayer during the same period, but it's nevertheless a substantial part of ASH's annual income.

The money has been awarded by the Department of Health with the express purpose of supporting the tobacco control plans of successive governments ...

What may concern ASH is the fact that grants are now subject to a bidding process. This means that ASH could (and hopefully will) face competition for future DH grants.

See ‘Please, minister, we want some more’.

The following day I wrote:

The irony of course is that any grant ASH receives from the DH will come with a clear stipulation that it cannot be used to lobby government.

Lobbying, however, is what ASH is particularly good at – hence this sudden burst of activity. So here's another question:

What part of ASH's funding is currently being used to lobby government to grant the group funds to support the government's tobacco control plan?

Tricky, isn't it? Perhaps it would be best to exclude ASH from the process entirely so there is no confusion.

Either way, may I suggest that public health minister Steve Brine changes his Twitter banner as a matter of urgency?

It currently features the CEO of a certain anti-smoking lobby group that is seeking a grant from the Department of Health in what should be an impartial bidding process.

That process should not only be fair, it should be seen to be fair and impartial. Just a thought.

See ‘It’s all about the money’

To be honest, I don’t think anyone seriously thought ASH wouldn’t get the nod and, lo and behold, that’s exactly what has happened.

In answer to a written question by Philip Hollobone MP (‘To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what progress his Department has made in tendering for the grant scheme relating to external stakeholder support for the tobacco control plan’), public health minister Steve Brine has replied:

The grant scheme to secure additional support to assist in the delivery of commitments made in the tobacco control plan was advertised in May and June 2018. Ten eligible organisations applied for this funding.

The Department reviewed these applications as per Cabinet Office guidelines in July and finalised this in August. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in a partnership application with FRESH North East scored the highest. All applicants have been informed of the results and paperwork is currently being finalised in order to award the grant to ASH and FRESH North East.

Note that it took a written question by a member of parliament to get this information out of the DH. Shouldn’t there have been a formal statement?

Apart from that, the most notable thing about Brine’s reply is not the fact that ASH won the bidding process (that was widely anticipated) but that it was a joint application with Fresh North East.

For years regional quit smoking groups have been under threat as councils have wised up to the fact that they can make long overdue savings by cutting budgets in this overcrowded area.

Smokefree South West and Tobacco Free Futures (formerly Smokefree North West) both succumbed to an outbreak of common sense among local councillors, but Fresh North East - run by Deborah Arnott’s mini me, Ailsa Rutter - kept going (supported, it must be said, by a hilariously compliant local media).

The award of £500,000 over five years will therefore come as a welcome boost for Fresh North East and ASH.

What’s laughable though is the fact that the Department of Health has taken so long to reach a decision everyone knew they would come to in the first place.

The only outstanding issues are:

One, who were the other nine bidders? (I think we should be told.)

Two, for the sake of transparency (a difficult concept for governments to grasp), the DH must publish the reasons it awarded the grant to ASH and our friends in the north ahead of those rival claims.

Watch this space.


Zero sum game

Gotta love Philip Morris.

Hardly a week goes by without some new announcement or initiative designed to bolster the idea that smoking is about to be consigned to history.

Today the company that wants to stop selling cigarettes in England by 2030 - the year Public Health England also hopes England will be ‘smoke free’ with fewer than five per cent of the population smoking - has released research that claims that one city, Bristol, could have ZERO smokers in just six years.

It’s nonsense, of course.

Nevertheless, according to the Daily Mail:

The research is based on a current smoking rate of 11.14 per cent of people in Bristol. The number of smokers in Bristol fell by 9.95 percentage points between 2011 and 2017, so the figure is based on current trends continuing.

Assuming that current trends will continue is hugely problematic, of course, and probably unrealistic.

After all, while there was a significant fall in smoking rates between 2012 and 2016 it just happened to coincide with a sharp increase in the number of smokers switching to e-cigarettes.

But that seems to have stalled with the number of people who vape falling from a peak of 2.9m to 2.8m (according to the latest figures).

Also, if the option of e-cigarettes combined with the smoking ban, display ban, plain packaging and punitive taxation haven’t persuaded almost one in six adults to quit, it’s hard to see that figure dropping below five or even ten per cent any time soon.

Indeed, according to the same research, at current rates the country as a whole won’t kick the habit until 2050.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing what Peter Nixon, MD of Philip Morris UK, has to say at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum that begins in London tonight and continues on Wednesday and Thursday.

He’s one of the keynote speakers and I hope he will repeat his company’s commitment to stop selling cigarettes in the UK within 12 years.

The announcement attracted a lot of headlines but, as someone pointed out to me the other day, it’s hardly very brave to announce that your company intends to stop selling cigarettes in a country in which your market share is a fraction of your competitors who have far more to lose.

A declaration that PMI would like to stop selling cigarettes within twelve years in regions where they are market leaders for combustible tobacco would be far more impressive but I doubt if that will happen.

Meanwhile I will continue my search for someone who uses iQOS, the heat-not-burn device that Philip Morris wants smokers to use instead of combustible cigarettes.

As readers know, based on consumer feedback I’m favourably impressed with iQOS. However, it’s almost impossible to find anyone who uses it in the UK. Believe me, I’ve tried.

A few weeks ago I even contacted PM to ask if they could suggest one or two people in the Westminster village who use the product and they couldn’t come up with a single name!

(I’m aware, btw, that Mark Littlewood, director-general of the IEA, is an occasional user of iQOS, but he’s unavailable for the event we’ll be announcing shortly).

Frankly, this doesn’t bode well if Philip Morris wants every smoker in England to quit or switch to iQOS within the next 12 years.

If ‘current trends’ continue they may have to revise that target.


Points of view

God played a little joke on me last night.

I was at Magdalene College, Cambridge (above), to speak at a dinner ahead of the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum that takes place in London this week.

Following drinks outside, we were ushered in to the old candlelit hall (no gas, no electricity), first built in the early 16th century. And there, sitting directly opposite me, was a senior research analyst from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

What are the chances?

I discovered she has a background in human rights and is also interested in gender issues. If I understood her correctly, smoking is a gender issue because, worldwide, the majority of smokers are men and by smoking they are imposing their habit (or worse) on the women around them.

Anyway, I had an enjoyable discussion with her and a chap who works for Juul Labs, and following my after dinner 'speech' – which emphasised the need to respect those who choose to smoke – things got even livelier with several other guests pitching in.

Summing up, our host Elise Rasmussen made the point that the pre-conference field trip tends to lend itself to more robust discussion because people are more relaxed and tend to open up more.

Sadly, such contrasting views are unlikely to feature on any of the panels at this week's conference which is dominated by those who want to see smoking eradicated from the planet. That's a pity because I think it would liven up some of the sessions.

We are however promised a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT.

Watch this space.


Dinner date

I’m giving an after dinner speech at Magdalene College, Cambridge, this evening.

Among other things I'll be talking about Forest and the work we do supporting smokers.

The event, which starts with drinks on an outside terrace, is part of the field trip that precedes the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) that takes place in London this week.

The first GTNF (or Global Tobacco Network Forum as it was then called) was held in Rio de Janeiro in 2008. I missed it due to a misunderstanding (the invitation sounded too good to be true!) but I’ve attended every GTNF since - in Bangalore (2010), Antwerp (2012), Cape Town (2013), West Virginia (2014), Bologna (2015), Brussels (2016) and New York (2017).

I’d be hard pressed to choose my favourite because they were all memorable for different reasons, good and bad.

But if I was to judge it purely on our hotel, the memorable reception we received when we arrived at 6.00am following a nine-hour flight, and the fact that it was my first and only visit to India, Bangalore is the one that really sticks in my mind.

Cape Town would be up there too, although it didn't make quite the same impression. Nevertheless it’s somewhere I’d like to re-visit because even though I stayed on for a couple of days I saw very little of the actual city.

That’s the problem with conferences. During the event you rarely see much beyond the hotel grounds, even though you might be driven 20 or 30 miles to some ‘special’ location for a drinks reception or gala dinner.

Anyway, based on what I remember, I’d mark my experiences as follows:

Bangalore 9/10
New York 8/10
Cape Town 8/10
West Virginia 7/10
Bologna 6/10
Antwerp 5/10
Brussels 5/10

Inevitably perhaps the conferences that were easiest to get to were the least memorable, which is why I'm struggling to get excited about this week’s event in London (11-14 September).

In fact, until very recently - based on the programme and the list of speakers - I was in two minds whether to go at all.

But more about that next week.

In the meantime here are some posts from previous GNTF conferences:

Welcome to Bangalore
Postcard from India - parts 1, 2 and 3
GTNF 2012 – the highs and lows
Out of South Africa
Greetings from the Greenbrier
Pork chop at a bar mitzvah – reflections on GTNF 2015
Mandela, moon landings and JFK GTNF 2017


More thoughts on smoking and the nanny state

Further to my previous post, here are more of my comments from last week’s interview on BBC Radio Guernsey.

On smoking in the open air

There is no research that says that smoking in the open-air poses any risk to any non-smoker. You would have to be in very close proximity to a smoker and be a very serious asthmatic for that to have any effect whatsoever and asthma is rather an interesting one because over the last 30, 40 years, while smoking rates have more than halved, cases of asthma have actually tripled. So clearly there is something else going on there, but in terms of cancer there is not a shred of evidence that exposure to somebody smoking outdoors is going to have any impact on you whatsoever. I don’t want to go over old arguments but even passive smoking indoors, there's been a lot of research over many many years, and even there the evidence of long-term harm is pretty insubstantial.

I do accept that smoking indoors can be unpleasant for a lot of people and I totally accept that smoking should be restricted in indoor public places. I would still argue very strongly that there should be indoor public smoking rooms in pubs. You were speaking to Peter Lee [a Guernsey publican]. I remember seeing Peter many years ago and I don't see there is any reason why we shouldn't have smoking rooms indoors. And of course this is one of the problems. Because smoking is now banned everywhere indoors it has forced people go outside and so you get people complaining [about] people hanging around outside pubs and clubs or somebody who wants to smoke outside the airport or outside the harbour and it does seem rather petty to ban smoking in designated smoking areas outside the harbour or even outside the airport.

We know that flying for example can be quite stressful for a lot of people. I have only been to Guernsey airport once. Obviously it is quite a small airport so you are probably not there for hours on end [like] you might be at larger airports like Heathrow and so on, but to say you can't smoke even in a designated smoking area takes the whole war on tobacco too far. It's nothing to do with public health because if you smoke it’s a private health matter. It’s not a public health matter if you're smoking outdoors and I just think that politicians and anti-smoking campaigners need to get a grip. There are far more important things in life than banning people from smoking in the open-air.

On the nanny state

I am reluctant to use that term these days because it’s been overused. I personally would use the term bully state because I think we've gone beyond nannyism. Nannyism is quite benign. It's trying to help people make the right choices but the point is, in recent years, particularly with tobacco and smoking, we have had the bully state because it is no longer [about] nudging people to change their habits, it’s about forcing them to quit smoking and I think often that's quite counterproductive because I think a lot of people don't like being told how to behave and what you're seeing increasingly now is some smokers reaching for their fags in defiance because we are now down to, if you like, the core smokers which is about 15 to 16 per cent of the population, and I think it’s going to be very difficult - without bringing in very authoritarian practices - to actually push the smoking rates down into single figures because there are, as I said before, a considerable number of people who smoke because they enjoy it. They may admit that they're addicted to it [but] we've done research which shows that, of what we call confirmed smokers, over half will say, yes, I'm addicted to smoking but I don't care because the pleasure outweighs the thought that they are addicted, and I say we have to respect people who choose to consume a legal product. If you want to go down the line of banning the product, like alcohol in United States, well that’s a different matter, but as I say that won't work. You will simply drive it underground and people will continue to smoke.

On smoking on hospital grounds

I understand that hospitals don't want to be seen to encourage it, but the reality is that people get comfort from smoking and if you are in hospital, particularly if you are elderly, you have gone in to hospital for a completely non-smoking related reason, you might be having a hip replacement, for example, you might be in hospital for six, seven, eight weeks. If you're told you can't go out and have a smoke then I think that’s actually quite cruel. We've seen situations where hospitals ban smoking on hospital grounds and elderly people, people who might be attached to a drip, [are] wheeled off site perhaps a quarter of a mile away where they sit or stand on a busy main road with all these diesel buses and cars going past them. This is inhumane. So while I understand why hospitals don't want to be seen to encourage smoking I think it’s a question again of being pragmatic and actually, you know, showing a bit of humanity to people who are in a stressful situation.

We’ve even had examples where staff are being threatened with disciplinary action, (a) if they're caught smoking in their uniform even though they might be off the premises, or (b) if they had the temerity to help a patient who wants to smoke, if they have the temerity to help a patient off site so they can light up. Those people might have worked for the NHS for 20, 30 years looking after people, caring for people, and they have been threatened with disciplinary action and potentially the sack for doing that and I think that’s utterly outrageous.

On countries that are getting it right

I think Germany is quite a good example of a nation, possibly for historical reasons, that does not want to appear to be too oppressive in it's lifestyle regulations. In Germany of course they actually have smoking lounges in airports. They are well ventilated, they are not smoky because they've got the latest state of the art ventilation, and that seems to be a very good compromise. Also in Germany, not in every state but in some states, and in Berlin for example, you'll still find some bars where you're allowed to smoke and again that seems to me a reasonable compromise. We are not asking for people to be able to light up whenever or wherever they want. Those days are gone and we wouldn’t expect a return to that, but we don't see why you should not be allowed to have smoking rooms in bars if the owner decided that it was a good thing for his business. What you will actually find is that very few bars and restaurants would allow smoking but at least there will be some element of choice. At the moment I think Germany is quite a good example of a country that gets the balance right.

To read the full interview click here.