Saturday
Apr012017

Ten years of Taking Liberties

Monday was the tenth anniversary of this blog.

I was going to mention this mini milestone earlier in the week but I've been otherwise engaged.

I started the week in Glasgow, drove 400 miles to Cardiff, and after that the days got busier and busier so there's been no time to wallow in nostalgia.

I'll let you into a little secret, though. Back in January I was planning to publish a heavily edited version of this blog as a book and call it Taking Liberties: A Decade of Hell or similar.

I began the compilation process but after spending the best part of two days trawling through the first six months I gave up.

First and foremost, the narcissistic nature of the project began to dawn on me.

Also, while I was quite pleased with one or two posts, in the cold light of day I don't think enough of them stood the test of time.

A lot of posts were, how shall I say, of their time. Taken out of their immediate context, others didn't make any sense at all.

They only worked in relation to other posts. As soon as I started omitting posts the whole thing began to unravel because the narrative thread was lost.

Maintaining that narrative meant including far more posts than I wanted to and the final result would have been longer than War and Peace.

An edited version of Taking Liberties would have been a nice record – for me – of ten years' hard labour but I suspect it would be of little value to anyone else so I binned the idea in a file marked 'Vanity Project'.

I can't let the moment pass without some comment, though, so here goes.

The model for Taking Liberties was Iain Dale's Diary. I enjoyed Iain's fluent, easy-to-read style and became an avid reader.

What I particularly liked was the fact that he combined political commentary with posts about his personal life and observations about things that had little to do with either, including his taste in music (Cliff Richard and Roxette, since you ask).

I've tried, with far less success, to achieve a similar balance between work-related posts and other things that interest me because I didn't want this to become a single-issue 'Forest' blog.

Iain's post about the day of his civil partnership to his long-term partner John (Our Perfect Day) was particularly touching and uplifting.

It didn't change my mind about civil partnerships because I wasn't against them, but reading it put me firmly in the pro camp.

Iain had (and has) a lot of political contacts so he often got news and gossip first. No wonder then that Iain Dale's Diary competed with Guido Fawkes for the title of Britain's top political blog.

It couldn't last because at one stage Iain was posting several times a day and with all his other commitments it became too much.

Iain still blogs, under iaindale.com, but posts are intermittent and it's not the same.

I don't blame him. I've never achieved his level of output but even writing this blog puts a strain on me, time-wise.

I do it because I enjoy it and because I think I can justify it as time well spent, although it eats into a lot of my evenings and weekends.

It's certainly gratifying to know that even though the number of visitors is paltry compared to Iain Dale's Diary, and smaller than many libertarian blogs, Taking Liberties is monitored by tobacco control and others. That fact alone keeps me going.

Quality not quantity is how someone described the readership of Taking Liberties. I couldn't possibly comment but feedback suggests that if I write about a person or organisation it often gets back to them via one source or other.

If they don't comment here directly their reaction is soon fed back to me and it's often a joy.

Anyway, the last ten years have witnessed a remarkable programme of anti-smoking measures and this blog has covered the lot – the introduction of the smoking ban in Wales, followed by England and Northern Ireland; the ban on tobacco vending machines; the display ban; punitive taxation; the Tobacco Products Directive; and plain packaging.

Our campaign against standardised packaging was, I think, a good example of how blogs like this can play an important role in generating support and momentum.

Allied to our street petition, they helped drive opponents of plain packaging to an online petition with the result that over 250,000 people signed the Hands Off Our Packs petition and a further 53,000 people signed a letter to the prime minister.

In short, blogs have a vital role to play in active campaigning, as I hope is evident from Hand Off Our Packs: Diary of a Political Campaign, a selection of posts from this very blog that you can download here.

At the very least Taking Liberties, like Dick Puddlecote and Chris Snowdon's blogs, provide information and commentary that is rarely available in the mainstream media.

Together we act as a rallying point for those with similar views. Unfortunately we are so few in number now I can count them on the fingers of one hand.

Truth is, blogs such as this have probably passed their peak. When I began posting in 2007 it wasn't uncommon to attract 100+ comments in response to a single post.

On one occasion, when I drew attention to the role of Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams in the launch of the Plain Packs Protect campaign in January 2012 and invited readers of Taking Liberties to make their views known to him, over 1,400 comments were posted on Williams' blog.

I imagine the declining number of comments and visitors is due in part to the subject matter because people understandably grow weary of reading about the same thing over and over again.

Back in 2007 a lot of people were reacting to the imposition of the smoking ban. Subsequent measures (the display ban, for example) didn't resonate with consumers in the same way.

Reading those early posts it's noticeable that hardly anyone who was commenting then is doing so in 2017.

Instead there appears to be a hard core of commenters who have been following this blog for several years but are relative latecomers.

If Taking Liberties is still going in another five or ten years, and if I haven't killed myself first, it will be interesting to see how many of you are still here.

Btw, my first post about vaping (Wanted: comments on e-cigarettes) was in January 2010. It attracted 111 comments and a lot of heated debate.

A few months later I wrote another post on the subject (A touch of the vapers) where I commented:

What amazed me was the remarkably heated debate, bordering on open warfare, that the subject provoked.

There seem to be three distinct groups. On one side are smokers who regard e-cigs as an abomination designed to wean them off tobacco. If anyone so much as touches an e-cig they are accused of "selling out" and succumbing to the Devil.

One the other side are ex-smokers who have become evangelists for vaping and consider their former fellow smokers to be stupid or dinosaurs or both.

In the middle (and my sympathies lie firmly with this group) are those for whom e-cigs offer a useful alternative in places where smoking tobacco is prohibited.

Since then I've commented on vaping many times and I hope I've made my position clear. I support alternative nicotine products because I support tobacco harm reduction but, more important, I believe people should be allowed to make informed choices and if that choice is to smoke it should be respected and defended.

This blog will always defend smokers (and smoking) because I believe the issue is a litmus test for anyone who claims to have a liberal or libertarian outlook on life.

I know I've annoyed some people with what are perceived to be persistent digs at (some) vaping advocates and organisations, but there's nothing more nauseous than seeing evangelical ex-smokers getting into bed with tobacco controllers whose long-term goal is the eradication of recreational nicotine in all its forms.

Likewise I know I risk being seen as a dinosaur defending the indefensible (something I'm quite comfortable with actually) but I believe – passionately – in choice and personal responsibility and as long as there are people who wish to smoke I will support them. If that means fewer visitors to this blog, so be it.

One final comment – on moderation.

There's no doubt that by moderating comments a few years back I shot myself in the foot in terms of the number of people posting comments.

Blog-wise, however, it's the best thing I ever did.

I don't mind criticism, personal or otherwise, but I'm an old-fashioned sort of journalist and apart from keeping some real nutters at bay, moderation has enabled me to weed out the most verbose, repetitive or inarticulate comments.

I also take the view - rightly as it happens - that because bloggers are subject to the same laws of libel and defamation as anyone else the idea that people can post whatever they like regardless of the consequences is dangerous nonsense.

As a result some commenters have left in a huff and I say, "Good riddance!"

To those who are still here I say, "You're very welcome." But I won't change my policy on moderation because, for me, it works.

Talking Liberties was launched on March 26, 2007. The early years can be found here.

In January 2011 the site was redesigned and relocated to its present URL. There was a reason we couldn't transfer all the earlier stuff to the new platform but I've no idea what it was.

Another thing I can't remember is how I stumbled upon Squarespace, the blogging platform I use.

I do know I wanted something that was very easy for a technophobe like me to use, and Squarespace hasn't disappointed.

The company was founded by a college student in 2003 and is headquartered in New York. On the rare occasion I've had a problem the customer helpline has been friendly and prompt in its response.

By coincidence there have been a number of articles about Squarespace in the Irish media in the last few days owing to the fact that the company has opened a new, larger office in Dublin as it looks to expand globally.

The Forest websites are currently migrating towards WordPress (on the advice of the various website designers we use) but I have to say I find Squarespace easier and more intuitive.

Anyway, if you've followed this blog since the early days, a sincere thanks. If you're a relative newcomer you're no less welcome.

Here's a selection of posts (or the handful I can remember writing):

David Hockney: Brighton breezy (May 2007)
Revolt in style: match report (June 2007)
Smoke-free England? (June 2008)
Kerry McCarthy - an update (July 2008)
Things we want to do before we die (May 2009)
End of an era (June 2009)
Brighton 2005 - Forest's greatest hit? (September 2009)
George Miller-Kurakin - a celebration (January 2010)
Welcome to Bangalore (October 2010)
Cut public spending on tobacco control groups (October 2010)
GTNF 2012 – the highs and lows (June 2012)
Wanted: a consumer champion for e-cigarettes who is not anti-smoking (February 2013)
Your man in Havana: notes from a Caribbean island (March 2013)
Official: Forest underestimated success of Hands Off Our Packs campaign (July 2013)
Where is the empathy for smokers who don't want to quit? (January 2014)
My father's funeral (June 2014)
Welcome to the good ole USA! (October 2014)
How to get a standing ovation at a tobacco industry convention (January 2015)
Why I'm not attending today's E-Cigarette Summit (November 2015)
Are vapers in denial about tobacco control? (March 2016)

There may be better posts (I hope there are) but I don't have time to look and my memory is not what it was!

Thursday
Mar302017

Brand management

A lot of money is spent (and wasted) on corporate branding.

I discovered this when I started working in public relations 37 years ago. In those days, if a PR agency acquired a new client, it was not uncommon to suggest, as a first step, that they change their entire brand identity.

It was sold to them as a way of moving on from the past (modernising!) with the added benefit that it might generate some publicity. What we didn't say was that, for the PR company, it was a great way to hit the ground running and stamp your mark – literally – on the client.

It was a nice little earner too because in those days every expense – concept, design, materials (everything from letterheads to signage) – was marked up by 15 or 20 per cent. And that was on top of the consultancy fee.

In terms of making a bold personal statement publishers and editors do much the same thing, often commissioning a new masthead or ordering the redesign of an entire publication within weeks of their appointment.

I know this because I've been there and done it, in PR and publishing. I also did it when I joined Forest. Within weeks I'd jettisoned Forest's existing logo and commissioned a brand new one (no pun intended).

The 'new' logo, designed by Patrick O'Callaghan, a graphic designer I'd worked with since the Eighties when we both worked at the Barley Mow Workspace in Chiswick, has done Forest proud for 18 years and I had no plans to change it.

However, when we were discussing the launch of Forest EU, we agreed we needed a strong brand identity to help make an immediate impact in Brussels.

That was when I thought it might be time to replace the existing logo with a new one that could be adopted by all three Forest campaigns – UK, Ireland and EU.

So we commissioned Dan Donovan – who we've worked with since 2007 – to come up with a new design, using different colours to identify the various groups.

Twelve weeks ago we met for coffee at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge and talked it through. Last week, shortly before we unveiled the new branding, I asked Dan to explain the concept.

He writes:

I set about the design of a new logo for Forest after we discussed and re-established Forest's brand characteristics, values and aspirations.

The existing logo was designed way before web and social media graphics became such an important platform for brand and it was felt that now was the time for a new logo.

With the forthcoming launch of Forest EU (to add to Forest and Forest Ireland) we wanted something fresh with an international flavour serving all three organisations – a common logo with an individual twist.

We started with a clean, legible, open-faced font that suggests Forest is friendly and approachable. The use of lower case was an important dynamic in communicating this important characteristic.

Looking at the old logo we felt the dominant 'O' – which was originally meant to suggest a smoke ring – was confusing as a graphic. By removing it we wanted to have an icon that suggested 'smoking' in a manner that more people could understand.

With two simple waving lines coming from the glowing orange 'o' in the word 'Forest' an icon developed that could even stand alone. In particular I wanted an image that countered the all too common 'No Smoking' graphic with all the negativity that smokers like me find offensive.

The colour coding for the three organisations have an obvious generic feel – blue for EU, green for Ireland, and a continuation of the established UK brand using red.

However we wanted to achieve a strong, confident, approachable brand and chose bright but mature colours. Moving away from the conservative, formal tone that was used previously, the new Forest red is brighter and more direct.

The orange 'o' – that features in all three logo variations – is an important feature because it represents a burning cigarette which, if you look closely, glows orange not red.

Given that Forest's extended family of supporters now includes smokers and vapers (dual users especially) the two wavy lines might also be said to represent both smoking and vaping. (Well, that's my interpretation. No emails or letters, please!)

Design is highly subjective, of course, but I'm very happy with the new branding. After 18 years I think it was time for a change.

Photo: Dan Donovan

Tuesday
Mar282017

BBC News Wales surpasses itself – again

You may be aware that BBC News online regularly tests our patience.

BBC News Wales is the major culprit, happy to report anti-smoking stories and initiatives without a word of opposition. A typical example would be:

Ban smoking outside nurseries and GP practices, says Public Health Wales (December 7, 2016)

On February 1, however, they surpassed themselves with no fewer than three reports that were little more than propaganda:

Children's plea to stop smoking outside Welsh hospitals
Stub it out: Smoking challenge for hospitals in Wales
Calls for tougher smoking and junk food rules in hospitals

Together these reports prompted an official complaint from Chris Snowdon (Shameless BBC bias).

The BBC eventually updated one of the three reports with a comment from Forest but it took them six days, which is a lifetime in news terms.

A few weeks later BBC News Wales reverted to type with yet another report that failed to include a single balancing comment, initially at least.

After I complained they tacked on a quote at the end, which you can read here – Smoking quit targets 'should be legally-binding'.

With all that in mind I thought this might amuse you. It certainly made me laugh.

As you know we released a poll at the weekend that found that 58 per cent of people living in Wales would allow separate, well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and private members' clubs.

We gave the story to Wales on Sunday/Wales Online before releasing it to the rest of the media in Wales.

BBC Radio Wales picked it up but even though my colleague Jacqui Delbaere rang the newsdesk two or three times on Sunday and Monday morning, BBC News Wales was resistant to running it.

Yesterday afternoon I rang the newsdesk again and spoke to someone who denied any knowledge of the poll.

She did however say she would add our contact details to the 'diary' in case they were to write something about the smoking ban at the weekend.

So far so dull. Here's the interesting bit.

When I pushed her on why they wouldn't run a report about the poll in its own right she asked me how many people had been questioned.

"One thousand," I replied, at which point she said they had a policy of never reporting polls with such a small sample.

That, I said, beggars belief because 1,000 is a perfectly normal sample size for the UK's top pollsters.

I pushed her several times on what number BBC News Wales would consider acceptable and she eventually said, "3,000."

Dear reader, after I rang off I checked the most recent poll BBC News Wales ran as a story. Oddly enough it was an ICM poll for BBC Wales and the sample size (not mentioned in the report) was ... 1,002!

You couldn't make it up.

So I emailed her as follows:

Dear X

On 1st March you ran a report (EU migrants should have skills, public tells BBC Wales poll) based on an ICM poll for BBC Wales:

The report doesn't mention the sample size but I have tracked it down and it was 1,002 (not the minimum 3,000 you say you require).

Our sample size was exactly 1,000. Is there one rule for the BBC and another for everyone else?!!

I shall wait with interest to see whether BBC News Wales reports the result of our poll later in the week.

My guess is they will publish an article lauding the 'success' of the smoking ban, with a passing reference to the poll at the very end of the report - if we're lucky.

Watch this space.

Monday
Mar272017

Meet Guillaume Périgois, our new man in Brussels

Delighted to report the launch of Forest EU.

Yes, you read that correctly – Forest EU.

The project will be managed by Guillaume Périgois (above) who was formerly publishing director of Contrepoints, the largest classical liberal news website in France, and deputy director of New Direction, "the foundation for European reform". Prior to that he worked with trade associations, companies and think tanks.

Guillaume has a Masters degree in public affairs from the Political Sciences Institute of Bordeaux and a Masters degree in risk management from HEC Paris Business School. He's a French citizen who has lived in Brussels since 2008. We're delighted to welcome him on board.

The Forest EU website is launched today so you might want to pop over and check it out. More information and resources will be added before the official launch event in May.

I hope some of you will join us for that. In the meantime here's an edited version of our launch press release. You can read the whole thing here:

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union a smokers’ rights group founded in London in 1979 is launching a new chapter in Brussels.

The Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (Forest) campaigns against what it says are “excessive regulations” on smoking and tobacco.

Commenting on the launch of Forest EU, Simon Clark, director of Forest, said, “The war on tobacco has gone too far. Tobacco is a legal product yet smokers are being subjected to increasing attacks and restrictions on their habit. Enough is enough.

“Decisions made at EU level affect the lives of tens of millions of adults across Europe yet the revised Tobacco Products Directive, currently being enforced in member states, was introduced with very little engagement with ordinary consumers.

“As the UK prepares to leave the European Union we are delighted to be starting a new, EU-centred, chapter in our history. We will be bringing our trademark events to Brussels including smoker-friendly receptions and seminars. Our goal is to put consumers at the heart of the debate.”

Guillaume Périgois, director of Forest EU, said, “The role of Forest EU is to ensure that adults who don’t want to stop smoking are given a voice in Brussels and beyond. We intend to arm consumers throughout Europe with information and resources so they can engage with politicians and regulators at national and international level.

“The European Union has the power to set the agenda on smoking and other lifestyle issues. We hope that programme will focus on education not coercion. What we need is a liberal and pragmatic approach to tobacco that puts empathy above dogma and takes into account the views of ordinary citizens."

If you wish to follow Forest EU and receive occasional newsletters, click here.

You can also follow Forest EU on Twitter (@ForestEU_) and Facebook (click here).

To coincide with the launch of this new chapter in Forest's history we are also unveiling a new logo and brand identity for Forest UK and Forest Ireland. More on that tomorrow.

Monday
Mar272017

Good morning, Wales!

Currently in Cardiff trying to drum up more interest in our Populus poll about smoking rooms in pubs and clubs in Wales.

Wales on Sunday and Wales Online (which are part of the same group) ran the story yesterday (see previous post).

The South Wales Evening Post has reported it today and this morning I was on Jason Mohammad's programme on BBC Radio Wales.

Ironically, having driven to Cardiff from Glasgow yesterday, my offer to go to the BBC Wales studio was declined because they were happy for me to use my hotel landline.

In the event they couldn't get through to my room and I ended up using my mobile phone. I would have got better reception from my office in Cambridge!

Also on the programme was Suzanne Cass, CEO of ASH Wales, still smarting (I would guess) at the fact that Wales on Sunday and Wales Online quoted her counterpart – Deborah Arnott – from ASH (London).

That's what happens when you're unavailable at the weekend! 

Suzanne banged on about passive smoking but Jason reminded her (gently) that the issue was about choice, a concept that seems to be alien to ASH, whichever country they're in.

The funniest part was when Jason Mohammad mentioned the lovely family meal he and his children had enjoyed in a smoke-free pub at the weekend.

"Don't get me started about children in pubs," I said. "I've no problem with family-friendly pubs, or gastro pubs, but why can't we have adult only pubs too?"

I paraphrase but Jason's response was something along the lines of:

"Simon Clark doesn't like children in pubs. We'll get emails about that!"

I hope listeners heard me laughing.

Anyway, the programme was getting a lot of calls and texts on the subject so they had to move us on.

To date I've not heard a peep out of the pub industry but that's par for the course. With the exception of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association in Scotland, the various pub bodies were pretty useless at fighting their corner even before the smoking ban.

And we know of course that at least one trade association actively lobbied Tony Blair's government for a comprehensive smoking ban when they heard that private members' clubs might be exempted.

PS. Dick Puddlecote has written a good piece about the Populus poll here – The debate will never be over. Worth reading.

Sunday
Mar262017

Almost 60% would allow smoking rooms in pubs and clubs in Wales

Twelve months ago, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in Scotland, we commissioned a poll of 1,000+ adults living in Scotland.

One of the questions we asked was:

Do you think pubs and private members’ clubs, including working men's clubs, should or should not be allowed to provide a well-ventilated designated smoking room to accommodate smokers?

The response was clear:

Should be allowed 54%
Should not be allowed 40%
Don’t know 6%

Two weeks ago, to mark the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in Wales which falls on Sunday April 2, we commissioned another poll.

We asked 1,000 people living in Wales exactly the same question and got a very similar response:

Should be allowed 58%
Should not be allowed 37%
Don’t know 5%

The poll is published today and Wales Online has the story here:

A poll has revealed almost 60% of people want smoking rooms in Welsh pubs.

It's worth pointing out that Populus has now asked the same question no fewer than four times since 2015. Two of the four polls were UK-wide, the other two (as I've explained) were in Scotland and Wales.

Every time the response has been the same – a majority in favour of allowing pubs and clubs to provide a well-ventilated designated smoking room to accommodate smokers.

In June 2015 more than half (57%) of a representative sample of more than 2,000 people thought pubs and clubs should be allowed to provide a well-ventilated designated smoking room to accommodate smokers; 43% were opposed to the idea.

Twelve months later, in June 2016, the result was:

Should be allowed 59%
Should not be allowed 36%
Don’t know 5%

These polls are staggeringly consistent.

So when anti-smoking campaigners tell you how popular the smoking ban has been, with compliance rates in the region of 97 per cent, point out that compliance does not equal popularity.

ASH, naturally, has dismissed the poll, which is no surprise. After all, we're getting used to establishment figures discounting the views of ordinary people.

Full press release here.

Tuesday
Mar212017

Vaping etiquette? I'm your man

I was asked to talk about vaping etiquette on BBC Radio Guernsey this morning.

Inevitably, no sooner had I tweeted this exciting news than one or two vapers asked why the director of Forest, rather than a vaping advocate, should have been given this onerous responsibility.

Well, I don't think you have to be a vaper to have an opinion about vaping etiquette.

Likewise you can have a view on smoking etiquette without being a smoker.

Even though I don't do it myself I also have strong views on the etiquette of playing loud music in an apartment block.

Or shouting abuse at football matches. (For the record, it's OK to hurl abuse at the referee and opposing players, but not your own team.)

The list of things we don't do is endless but it shouldn't stop us having an opinion.

Some vapers however want to 'own' the subject of vaping to such an extent that no-one else is entitled to have a view.

Bollocks to that.

That aside, Forest has plenty of supporters who smoke and vape (half of all vapers in the UK are dual users, apparently) so it's not unreasonable for us to be asked to comment on vaping-related issues.

Anyway, the reason the subject came up is because, in association with Vype (a brand of e-cigarette manufactured by British American Tobacco) Debrett's has just published a Guide to Vaping Etiquette.

Hats off to BAT, or their PR company. It was a clever PR stunt that got lots of column inches, much to the annoyance of ASH.

Most of it is common sense but 'good' manners are subjective so there's plenty of scope for disagreement.

For example, Debrett's Guide to Vaping Etiquette says stealth vaping is a major faux pas.

Nonsense. The whole point of stealth vaping is that no-one is aware you're doing it. Or, if they are, the inconvenience to them is so small it's insignificant. So what's the problem?

There's also an unnecessary fixation with the smell of vaping. Lots of things smell, including perfume. Does that mean no-one should ever wear perfume, or a strong aftershave, in a confined public space?

The most extraordinary thing in the Guide however concerns the etiquette of vaping at a dinner party. According to Debrett's:

Even if your host or guests are happy for you to vape, it’s polite to offer to take it outside.

Let me get this right. You're invited to a dinner party. You ask your host and fellow guests if they mind you vaping in the house. They all say, "No problem, go ahead", at which point you excuse yourself and go outside!!!!!!!

The underlying problem is that social interaction is being replaced by a raft of rules and regulations designed to determine our behaviour to the nth degree.

Worse, people are being made to feel guilty when they have absolutely no reason to. I call it the politics of shame.

Invariably there will be a handful of people who flout what society thinks is acceptable behaviour. But so what? If no-one gets hurt, and the moment is relatively fleeting, what's the problem?

Meanwhile, what starts off as a well-intentioned guide to etiquette (ie common sense) is eventually enforced by law – at which point politicians, egged on by campaigners, introduce a whole new set of regulations.

Anyway, if you want to hear my "controversial" thoughts on the etiquette of vaping (among other things), click here.

Monday
Mar202017

ASH Scotland says smokers should be allowed to adopt or foster children

ASH Scotland has issued a briefing note arguing that smokers should not be banned from fostering or adopting children.

Naturally it comes with all the usual caveats about not smoking in the home plus the six key principles set out in Scotland's Charter for a Tobacco-free Generation.

Nevertheless, having been asked to comment on this issue many times over the years, I'm encouraged to read that:

ASH Scotland does not believe that kinship carers, foster carers or prospective adoptive parents should be forced to quit smoking ... Policies should therefore avoid excluding 'all smokers' from becoming kinship carers, foster carers or adoptive parents.

If that surprises you, you're not alone. Writing in the Herald today, social affairs correspondent Stephen Naysmith commented:

The smoking prevention charity is usually known for being pretty hardline and indeed it highlighted wide variations in the attitudes taken by councils in a 2014 survey, although fostering and adoption agencies usually followed guidance banning smokers from fostering or adopting babies, children under five, disabled children unable to play outside, and children with respiratory problems.

In a welcome and perhaps unexpected stance, ASH is now saying there are wider considerations to take into account. “Someone who smokes is as likely to be a good and suitable carer as anyone else and should not be excluded simply because they smoke,” the charity says ...

While Sheila Duffy, ASH Scotland chief executive, made clear that it continues to be concerned about the exposure of children in care to smoke and indeed the number of “looked after” children who smoke themselves, she said it was more important children had the best and most appropriate carers.

Hallelujah.

Interestingly, it's not a million miles from what Forest has been saying for over a decade. Invited, for example, to address The Fostering Network's annual conference in Glasgow in October 2006, I told delegates:

I do not accept that a blanket ban on carers who smoke is in the best interests of many children who desperately need a warm, loving home. The carer may have many other qualities that fit well with the particular child and the fact that they smoke should not be a major issue.

In such cases, it's up to the fostering authorities to make a judgement about whether or not the foster carer is the right match for the child, and they should look at the whole picture. In the words of the Fostering Network's Claire Dickinson, quoted in the Sunday Times (April 2000): "Being a good foster carer is about much more than whether or not you smoke."

Full speech here.

The following year, reacting to a recommendation that smokers should be banned from fostering children under five, we said:

"They are risking removing thousands of excellent foster parents from the system for the simple reason that they smoke."

In 2008, when South Lanarkshire Council did indeed ban smokers from adopting or fostering children under five, the Glasgow Evening Times wrote:

Forest ... alleges that commonsense is conspicuous by its absence in the thinking behind the ban, and argues that it could deprive a child of a caring home at a time when the UK is short of 20,000 foster carers.

Likewise, reacting to a decision by a London borough council to ban smokers from fostering any child, whatever their age, we said:

"This discriminates against people who would have made excellent foster carers, so it is damaging not only for them but also for the children they would have fostered."

Curiously I don't recall any comment from ASH or ASH Scotland in response to these reports so you'll forgive me if I'm a trifle cynical about ASH Scotland's briefing note, not to mention this quote, reported by Stephen Naysmith:

“We don’t want to stigmatise smokers, most aren’t smoking out of choice,” information officer Allison Brisbane told me.

Aside from the 'most smokers are addicts and don't choose to smoke' line, the suggestion that ASH Scotland don't want to stigmatise smokers is so preposterous I had to laugh.

In fact I think Naysmith unwittingly hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "The smoking prevention charity is usually known for being pretty hardline."

Precisely. What we're seeing here is a subtle rebrand.

For years ASH Scotland has outdone almost everyone for its puritanical approach to smoking. Led by CEO Sheila Duffy (who always brings to mind the PG Wodehouse quote, "It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine"), ASH Scotland is the epitome of the censorious bully state.

Suddenly, and belatedly, they're embracing e-cigarettes and arguing that smokers shouldn't be banned from adopting or fostering children.

Why? Who knows, but I suspect it's tactical (and, no, I'm not a conspiracy theorist!). The fact is, ASH Scotland's "hardline" approach was wearing thin, even in Scotland.

But don't be fooled. It's only a passing phase. Normal service will be resumed soon.

PS. According to Scotland's Charter for a Tobacco-free Generation, "Every child has the right to effective education that equips them to make informed positive choices on tobacco and health."

Not "informed choices" but "informed positive choices". What happens if you make an informed "negative" choice – is that allowed?

See Helping children and young people who are 'looked after' to grow up free from tobacco (ASH Scotland).