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Monday
May202019

Sleepwalking to prohibition

Twelve months today menthol cigarettes will be banned throughout the European Union.

Regardless of whether we have left by then (I have my doubts), menthols will be banned in the UK too.

The policy was introduced as part of the EU’s revised Tobacco Products Directive that was implemented on May 20, 2016.

Member states were given a year to introduce a range of measures including larger health warnings plus bans on ten packs and smaller pouches of rolling tobacco.

The ban on menthol-flavoured tobacco was overlooked by most people, including consumers, because it was given a three-year stay of execution.

I imagine that stocks will decline gradually in the new year before consumers wake up on May 20, 2020, and find that their local store no longer sells any brand of menthol cigarette, a product they may have purchased regularly for years if not decades.

The reason for the ban is the disputed claim that because menthols are allegedly ‘smoother’ than regular cigarettes they appeal more to teenage smokers and therefore encourage more children to smoke.

It’s said too that the minty flavour masks the taste of tobacco, which again makes them more appealing to children. Allegedly.

Consumers in Britain will notice the absence of menthol cigarettes more than in other European countries because according to Euromonitor 18 per cent of all cigarettes sold in the UK are menthol-flavoured.

In Ireland the figure is just three per cent.

Consumers will take it on the chin, as we always do, but the seriousness of the situation can’t be ignored.

We’re not talking about a display ban that ‘hides’ the product from customers, or ‘plain’ packaging that removes all branding and replaces it with the ‘ugliest’ colour in the world.

Those policies may ultimately reduce the number of brands available to consumers but they didn’t stop adults purchasing cigarettes, flavoured and non-flavoured.

Even the sexist ban on slim packs (which implied that women are influenced more by looks and length!) made no fundamental difference to people’s ability to smoke.

The ban on menthol cigarettes is different. Suddenly we are faced with the prohibition of an entire class of product that was first developed in the States in the 1920s.

After May 20 next year over one million consumers will have the following choices:

1. Switch to non-flavoured cigarettes
2. Quit smoking and switch to (menthol) vapes
3. Quit all nicotine products
4. Buy illicit menthol cigarettes on the black market

Almost one in five cigarettes sold in Britain are menthol. What next? A ban on all cigarettes, not to mention any product that is considered ‘attractive’ to young people - sweets and sugary drinks, for example.

We really are sleepwalking to prohibition and few people are either aware or willing to do anything about it.

WAKE UP!!!!!

See ‘UK "sleepwalking to prohibition" says Forest’ and ‘The EU’s mental ban on menthol‘ (Spiked).

Sunday
May192019

Evening at the IEA

Many thanks to the Institute of Economic Affairs for hosting an In Conversation event featuring me and IEA director-general Mark Littlewood on Thursday night.

We covered a range of issues before finishing with Q&As. Although we over-ran our allotted 60 minutes the time went very quickly - for me at least, if not the audience.

The event was filmed and assuming I didn’t say anything I seriously regret the video will be posted online next week.

One thing I hadn’t expected was to be presented with a trophy/award for services rendered. It was extremely thoughtful of those involved and much appreciated.

Afterwards we went for dinner and I was touched by the kind words (partly fuelled by alcohol) that continued around the table.

In fact, I was so surprised (both the dinner and the award had been organised without my knowledge) that I failed to thank the many people who have supported Forest and been a great help to me personally.

Several were present on Thursday so I’m a bit annoyed I didn’t have the presence of mind to say something.

Fortunately we are hosting a gala dinner next month to mark Forest’s 40th anniversary so I will have an opportunity to thank everyone then.

In the meantime, here are some photos from Thursday night. Special thanks to Mark, Angela Harbutt, Elise Rasmussen and Guillaume Perigois.

PS. The trophy Mark is holding in the photo below is one of Forest’s Voices of Freedom awards. It should have been presented to him two years ago but events intervened. Better late than never.

Thursday
May162019

In conversation with Mark Littlewood

I shall be in London today for this event.

If you'd like to join us, do come along. Drinks from 6.00pm!

Wednesday
May152019

Women wanted

Email from a TV news producer:

We are looking to expand the number of female experts on our programmes to better reflect the population we serve. Do you have any female spokespeople available for on-camera interviews?

Last year I spoke to someone who worked for a Westminster-based pressure group.

He was leaving, he said, because TV news and current affairs increasingly want female voices. This meant that, however good he was, he reckoned there would be fewer opportunities to advance his career as a media spokesman.

To be clear, I have no problem with more women appearing on TV in any capacity as long as they are chosen on merit. (Same goes for men!)

Today think tanks and pressure groups such as the IEA, TaxPayers' Alliance and Adam Smith Institute all have female spokesmen, and many of them are very good, but I hope smaller groups with fewer employees won't be at a disadvantage if they can't provide a female voice.

As it happens, Forest had female spokesmen long before many other groups. In Scotland in the Nineties we were represented by a lady called Anne Moodie.

My predecessor Marjorie Nicholson worked for Forest for the best part of ten years and was our principal spokesman for five. We were both very ably supported by Juliette Torres (nee Wallbridge).

Another Forest spokesman, from 2001-2004, was Jo Gaffikin (who went on to work for the Design Museum via the National Gallery), so having a female voice has never been an issue for us.

Currently, if we need a female voice – to discuss smoking during pregnancy, for example, which I personally feel a bit uncomfortable talking about – we ‘outsource’ the task to a short list of women who are happy to talk about such issues.

I won't mention their names but one or two are quite well known to readers of this blog ...

Tuesday
May142019

Risk and regulation

A new study has found that the tobacco display ban has reduced the ‘risk’ of children smoking.

Given that it was conducted by researchers at Stirling University, home of the Centre for Tobacco Control Research, you’ll forgive me if my default reaction was to treat it with a little suspicion.

So far I’ve only read the press release but it’s interesting that when judging the impact of the ban researchers focused on children’s ‘susceptibility to smoking’, point-of-sale visibility and brand awareness rather than clear evidence that fewer children are smoking as a result of the ban:

Smoking susceptibility among never smokers decreased from 28 percent pre-ban to 23 percent mid-ban, and 18 percent post-ban. Noticing cigarettes at point-of-sale decreased from 81 percent pre-ban, to 28 percent post-ban; and cigarette brand awareness also reduced, with the average number of cigarette brands recalled declining from 0.97 pre-ban to 0.69 post-ban.

Of course it’s good news if fewer children are smoking but there are other ways to reduce youth smoking rates that don’t involve creeping prohibition and policies that infantilise us all.

The issue is, how far should government go to deter children from smoking and are laws like the display ban justified by the outcome (which I maintain is still unclear, despite this study)?

For what it’s worth, my view is that there was very little evidence (before the ban) that the sight of cigarettes in shops encouraged children to smoke, and very little evidence (post ban) that the legislation has had any impact on youth smoking rates.

Anyway, invited to comment on the study I gave the BBC this rather long-winded response, with the caveat that they were free to edit it, which they did.

“The study looked at risk and susceptibility but both are subjective. We're told that the risk of eleven to 16-year-olds taking up smoking went down because of the display ban but where is the evidence that the ban actually reduced the number of children who smoke?

“We support reasonable measures that discourage children from smoking but hiding a legal consumer product infantilises everyone and sets an unwelcome precedent for other potentially harmful products. 

“Instead of hiding tobacco products, children need to be educated about the health risks and taught that it's wrong to smoke until they are 18 when they can make an informed choice. At the same time retailers who sell cigarettes to anyone under 18 must be prosecuted and punished."

See: Tobacco display ban 'safeguards young people' (BBC News)

Saturday
May112019

The downfall of Danny Baker

I’m a fan of Danny Baker - or I was.

As presenter of the Radio Five breakfast programme (pre-Five Live) almost 30 years ago, Baker was responsible for the most enjoyable daily radio show I have ever listened to - a joyful mix of obscure facts and humorous anecdotes plus music that was chosen not from a playlist but by Baker himself.

Even now I can picture myself driving across Battersea Bridge (I was living in London at the time), listening to the radio and genuinely laughing.

The only problem were the regular interruptions for news bulletins, weather forecasts and traffic updates.

(In view of recent events it’s worth noting that Baker seemed to care little for these staples of breakfast radio. I certainly can’t imagine he was listening to or took any interest in such mundane matters as the news but none of this excuses the tweet for which he has just been sacked, more of which later.)

Baker was also the first and best presenter of 6-0-6, the Five Live football phone-in, which is virtually unlistenable to these days.

He would never allow clueless callers to ramble on indefinitely. If they had nothing of interest to say or were talking baloney he would happily cut them off and move on to the next caller.

Meanwhile he would tease out of listeners all sorts of football related trivia, little of which had anything to do with what had happened on the pitch that afternoon.

Today the programme is a tedious whinge-athon populated by long-winded callers demanding that such and such a manager be sacked or whatever (yawn).

Curiously we are told it’s the nation’s favourite football phone-in but thanks to people being allowed to burble on and on it features very few callers.

Anyway a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Baker was at the helm including a switch to Radio 1 that was never going to work, two sackings (from Five Live and BBC Radio London), a hugely successful three-volume autobiography that was adapted for a TV sitcom starring Peter Kay and, most recently, a one-man show that toured the nation’s theatres in 2017 and is currently touring again.

His autobiography was beautifully written with many laugh out loud moments. The third volume combined laughs with a warts ‘n’ all description of his cancer treatment that was actually quite harrowing.

I saw his one-man show in Milton Keynes in April 2017 and recognised most if not all of the stories from the books. Baker was clearly enjoying himself - and so, to be fair, was the audience - but the show went on and on and didn’t finish until well past eleven.

It felt a bit self-indulgent, if I'm honest.

Baker’s visceral support for Labour during the 2017 general election was the moment I began to lose patience. (The party he supports is irrelevant. It’s the fact that he was so brazen about it that really irked.)

I don’t know his contractual situation but if he was employed as a freelance broadcaster by an external production company he may not have been bound by the same guidelines as regular BBC staff.

Nevertheless it takes a remarkable degree of arrogance for any high profile BBC presenter (freelance or otherwise) to openly support a major political party at any time let alone during a general election.

And that’s the problem. Danny Baker is a brilliant radio presenter but he should have been reminded then of his responsibilities when working for a publicly-funded broadcaster. (Perhaps he was and chose to ignore the advice.)

Which brings us to that tweet and that picture. In isolation it’s a funny picture. But it wasn’t posted in isolation. Baker directly associated a picture of a chimp with Harry, Meghan and their baby.

He protested, and I believe him, that he was poking fun at the royal family and the circus that surrounds new born members of the family.

He argued too that the tweet was targeting posh people. I accept that too, just as I believe him when he says that race was not on his mind when he posted it.

But the naivety is staggering. Where was that little voice in his head telling him how unwise it was to post a picture of a chimp in relation to a mixed race baby, posh or otherwise?

He compounded the problem by suggesting that only people with ‘diseased minds’ would think that way.

He then kept on digging, suggesting he had no idea which member of the royal family had had a baby. Seriously?

I like Danny Baker, I really do. I genuinely think this was an innocent mistake, one he quickly acknowledged. As soon as he was made aware of the offensive connotations of the tweet he apologised and deleted it.

As others have said, what more could he do (other than not post it in the first place)? Unfortunately it was too late and I fear his BBC career may finally be over.

On air and especially in print Baker had a filter - a producer and an editor. Alone on social media he had neither.

A couple of years ago, before the success of his one-man show, Baker talked of giving up broadcasting and moving to America where he spends many of his holidays.

The 2017 tour was due to be his swan song. Two years later he’s still entertaining audiences (on stage at least), but for how long? I guess the public will decide.

Update: Danny Baker: Standing ovation at first show since Twitter storm (BBC News)

Wednesday
May082019

Coincidence? 

Well, that’s strange.

Yesterday I drew your attention to a new website, Vice’s Change Incorporated, that recently launched a Quit Cigarettes initiative funded by Philip Morris International.

I highlighted the titles of several anti-smoking articles and videos including a video I called ‘Smoking can shrink your penis’, although the actual title is ‘The Urologist: The Pros Who Know’.

Bearing in mind that the Change Incorporated campaign has had virtually no publicity to date, and this particular video was uploaded on April 2, the timing of this Mirror Online ‘exclusive’, published this afternoon, is curious.

Smoking cigarettes can make your penis SHRINK, scientists warn:

Mr Marc Laniado, Harley Street urologist, explained: “I see erectile dysfunction a great deal.

“To have a firm erection, you need sufficient blood flow. Smokers have a higher incidence of artherosclerosis in all blood vessels, including those in the penis, which can reduce blood flow.

“The chemicals in smoke may also have an effect on firmness; nicotine causes blood vessels to become narrow. This can be temporary or - eventually - permanent.”

Scroll down and the report concludes:

Mr Laniado’s warning comes as part of Vice's Change Incorporated mission to get people in the UK to quit smoking cigarettes for good.

I’m not saying I’m responsible but if I did lead the Mirror Online to Marc Laniado and his penis shrinking theory I’m truly sorry!

Tuesday
May072019

Many smokers feel like pariahs, says Norway's new health minister, and that's stupid

Breaking news.

Norway's newly appointed health minister has caused controversy (sic) by saying people should be allowed to eat, smoke and drink "as much as they want".

"My starting point for this with public health is very simple. I do not plan to be the moral police, and will not tell people how to live their lives, but I intend to help people get information that forms the basis for making choices," she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK in an interview on Monday.

"People should be allowed to smoke, drink and eat as much red meat as much as they want. The authorities may like to inform, but people know pretty much what is healthy and what is not healthy, I think."

"I think many smokers feel like pariahs. So they almost feel they have to hide away, and I think that's stupid. Although smoking is not good, because it is harmful, adults have to decide for themselves what they do.

"The only thing we as governments are to do is to provide information so that people can make informed choices. That is why we should, among other things, [devise] a tobacco strategy now, which will help prevent young people from starting to smoke and often want to make more adults quit."

Full story: Let people smoke, drink and eat red meat - Norwegian health minister (BBC News).

Note the inevitable (and unnecessary) BBC dig:

A populist politician with anti-immigration views ...

What do her views on immigration have to do with her views on smoking, eating and drinking?

PS. If you're wondering how an increasing number of smokers are being made to feel like pariahs, check out my previous post.