Brussels bound, again

At the end of this month we're hosting the official launch party for Forest EU.

The event takes place on May 31 at The Staff 42, a stylish bar restaurant just yards from the European Parliament.

By coincidence May 31 is also World No Tobacco Day.

Last year I was in Brussels on WNTD and I couldn't help noticing that the Smokefree Partnership, a coalition of tobacco control groups that includes ASH and Cancer Research UK, was hosting a reception to mark the Tobacco Products Directive and 'plain packaging progress in the EU'.

Naturally I endeavoured to get an invitation – but they didn't reply (sob). Instead I spent the evening watching football in an Irish bar off Avenue Louise.

I can't say Forest EU is the direct result of the Smokefree Partnership's little soirée. It did give the project the kick start it needed though because our long-term goal is to create our own coalition that is the antithesis of the anti-smoking lobby in Brussels.

Whether we succeed remains to be seen but if you'd like to join us in Brussels on May 31 and help make our voices heard it would be great to see you. Click here to register.

PS. Last week I was in Brussels to attend the launch of Students for Liberty's Consumer Choice Center.

Next week I am returning for the first Nanny State Index conference. After that it's the Forest EU launch party.

How ironic that just as the UK is preparing to Brexit I find myself semi-resident in the heart of the EU!


Lifestyle and the NHS

I was on The Big Questions (BBC1, above) yesterday.

The programme was broadcast from a secondary school just outside York. They wanted guests to arrive by 8.45 so I had to leave home shortly after six to drive the 138 miles from Cambridgeshire.

When I arrived there were outside broadcast vans in the car park and the staff room had been commandeered as a green room.

I introduced myself to one or two guests including Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum and we talked about Formula 1 (which he likes) and boxing (which he doesn't).

Presenter Nicky Campbell then came to say hello. As I've mentioned before, Nicky and I were at Aberdeen University together. I didn't know him well - he was one or two years below me - but our paths crossed via a student newspaper I edited and I've followed his career with interest.

We had a brief chat before we were taken downstairs to a large room that had been converted into a makeshift studio.

Prior to the live broadcast there was a 'rehearsal' to check mics etc. Guests and members of the audience were encouraged to talk about the election but as I was wearing my Forest hat I preferred to keep quiet.

If you watch The Big Questions you'll know that each week they feature three topics, devoting approximately 18-minutes to each one.

This week the subjects were 'Should the NHS ration according to lifestyle?', 'Is welfare reform working?' and 'Are your actions more important than your beliefs?'

The lifestyle issue was first up but instead of developing into a debate it was more a series of non-related statements by various guests, followed by two or three comments from members of the audience.

My contribution was limited to a handful of soundbites.

It's "morally wrong", I said, to deny people operations because of their lifestyles.

It's also "cruel" because if you're waiting for a hip or knee replacement you may be in "massive, physical pain" or unable to move.

Delaying operations would still cost the NHS money, I said, because patients may need medication and physiotherapy while they are waiting for their operations.

"No smoker should feel any guilt for smoking," I added, because they make a "massive contribution" to the welfare state and the NHS would "struggle without the tobacco taxes that smokers contribute."

I got a smattering of applause for saying I was overweight and would like to lose weight but didn't want the government to force me to lose weight by "introducing, for example, sugar taxes."

Later I got a bit more applause when I tackled a member of the audience who complained about the food and drink industries "supersizing us" (sic) with "giant capucinos you could take a swim in."

"People have a choice not to drink these things," I retorted. "We can make up our own minds."

There appeared to be very little support for the idea that the NHS should ration treatment on the basis of lifestyle but the 'debate' was so unfocused it was difficult to draw any conclusions.

As usual some speakers seemed to think the answer to everything lies in pouring more and more money into the health service or increasing taxes.

In hindsight I regret not suggesting that health is the new religion, with people increasingly classified as saints or sinners.

Given the nature of the programme, which describes itself as a series of "moral, ethical and religious" debates, it would have been more apposite.

Next time, perhaps.

PS. You can watch yesterday's episode of The Big Questions here.

They were going to describe Forest as "pro-smoking". After I put them right the caption on the screen was changed to 'Forest, lifestyle choice lobby'.

That has a nice ring to it.

PPS. My daughter, after seeing the programme, said, "You always seem so angry."

It's not me, it's my job!


How ignorance and propaganda influenced the smoking ban

Final word on my You and Yours interview with former Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt.

I mentioned yesterday that the 'as live' interview was edited quite heavily with the result that my reference to the Enstrom/Kabat study on passive smoking was omitted from the broadcast.

Interestingly, Hewitt admitted she had never heard of it, despite the fact that it remains the largest single study on the impact on secondhand smoke on people regularly exposed - year after year - to other people's tobacco smoke.

Two more things that didn't make the broadcast.

During the recording she explained that one of the factors in her decision to push for a comprehensive smoking ban was evidence that bans had reduced heart attacks.

She was referring to the famous 'heart attack miracle' in Helena, Montana, that has been debunked many times. (Fergus Mason wrote about it here only this week.)

Her comments were, I think, cut but it's significant she was aware of the Helena study but not the Enstrom/Kabat research.

In contrast her predecessor John Reid was very well briefed on the evidence on passive smoking - and made it his business to be so.

Unlike Hewitt he took the trouble to speak to ALL sides of the debate, including Forest.

Our late chairman Lord Harris and I were invited to a meeting with Reid and his senior advisor Julian Le Grand at the Department of Health.

Reid was clearly sceptical about the risks of passive smoking and when he was asked to comment Le Grand stated that the evidence was indeed weak.

The point is, Reid and his senior adviser were aware of all the evidence and spoke to all sides. Hewitt wasn't, and didn't.

Another thing that didn't make the cut was the story of Nick Hogan, the Bolton publican who received a six-month prison sentence for failing to pay fines received for allowing customers to smoke on his premises for one day only (July 1, 2007) in defiance of the ban.

I explained how I had travelled to Salford Jail to help oversee Nick's release after an online appeal had raised £9,000 to pay the accumulated fines.

The former Health Secretary said she knew nothing of that either - despite the headlines it attracted at the time.

Unfortunately her ignorance of this and other smoking-related issues wasn't broadcast and will have to remain a secret.

PS. There was an amusing postscript to our meeting with John Reid.

Prior to the meeting Lord Harris and I were under strict instructions to keep it confidential. Nobody was to know we were meeting and it was to take place under strict Chatham House rules.

Imagine my surprise - and consternation - when minutes after leaving the meeting I got a call from the Press Association asking me to comment on the meeting.

I was worried Reid might think we had gone straight to the press and this might jeopardise future engagement.

So I admitted the meeting had taken place but said nothing about our (extremely agreeable) discussion.

It took me a few minutes to realise that the source of the 'leak' must have been Reid's office and we were unwitting participants in what I imagine was his battle with the tobacco control lobby.


You and Yours (the smoking ban)

Further to my previous post ...

Click here to listen to the You and Yours item about the smoking ban, broadcast on Radio 4 at 12.30 today.

Although it was recorded 'as live' it's been edited quite a bit. At one point I launched into a diatribe against politicians like Patricia Hewitt. That's gone.

Without mentioning Enstrom and Kabat by name I also referred to their study, published in 2003, that found that the impact of long-term exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in the home may be considerably weaker than generally believed. (I may have used the word "insignificant" instead.)

That's gone too, possibly because Hewitt said she was unaware of it. Why am I not surprised? It may have been the largest ever study into the effects of 'passive' smoking but if she was 100 per cent reliant on the anti-smoking industry for her information you can be sure they kept quiet about it.

I praised her predecessor John Reid for trying to find a compromise but that didn't make the final edit either. 

And without listening to it again I think they also omitted my reference to Office for National Statistics surveys that in the years preceding the legislation repeatedly found that only a minority (approximately 30 per cent) supported a comprehensive ban.

Instead, Hewitt justified the legislation by referring to the cross party support it had among MPs, as if their views were more important than the general public. That's when I had my little rant against politicians!

To be fair, Hewitt's contribution was also edited. She spoke far more than is evident in the programme, which is one of the reasons I became a bit tetchy and argumentative. They've toned that down as well!

Finally, email to Forest from a listener following the programme:

I’ve just caught the discussion on [You and Yours], including comments by one of your supporters / officers, about public smoking not necessarily affecting others.

I couldn’t disagree more. I have lost count of the times I have had to cross the road to avoid the deeply unpleasant smoke from someone walking ahead of me, with a cigarette on.  

Smoking outdoors does have an affect on others as smoke drifts.  My wife and I have on several occasions left outdoor areas – eg the sitting area outside a café – because of drifting smoke.

Smokers should have a responsibility to keep their habit to themselves, and not inflict it on others.  I therefore fully support any proposals to extend the ban on smoking outdoors. 

Spare me.


Patrician Hewitt revisits the smoking ban

I recorded an interview yesterday for You and Yours, the Radio 4 consumer programme.

They wanted me to go head-to-head with Patricia Hewitt, the former Secretary of State for Health who introduced the smoking ban in England, to discuss both the run up to the ban and the impact it's had.

I was in a small studio in London - on my own - talking to Hewitt and presenter Peter White down the line.

The item, recorded 'as live', began with a clip featuring comments from smokers at a pub in Liverpool.

The first declared that the smoking ban was the "best thing this country ever did". (Better than abolishing slavery or fighting the Nazis?!)

The others weren't quite so adamant but there was a general consensus that the ban was 'a good thing'.

Our segment began like an episode of The Reunion, the Radio 4 series that reunites a group of people 'intimately involved in a moment of modern history'.

Hewitt explained her role and why a comprehensive ban was introduced when her predecessor John Reid had proposed exemptions for pubs that didn't serve food and private members' clubs.

She admitted a blanket ban wasn't in the 2005 Labour Party manifesto but said the government was under enormous pressure from the BMA and the rest of the medical profession to introduce the policy.

We traded various points until I grew a little tired of Hewitt's relentlessly patrician tone. (I can think of only one other politician whose voice grates so much and that's Diane Abbott.)

She was also talking at quite some length so I began to interrupt and argue. It got a bit heated (on my side), quite unlike a normal episode of You and Yours, so it will be interesting to hear how it comes across.

The funny thing is, as I left the building who should I bump into but ... Patricia Hewitt! (Unknown to me she was in an adjacent studio.)

The first thing that struck me was how small she is - she's no taller than my mother and similarly petite - which is not how I have always imagined her.

I apologised for being a little "aggressive" and we had a perfectly friendly five-minute chat, although it was clear we were never going to agree on much. We parted however on good terms. (Am I allowed to say that?)

The producer later emailed me to say "Lively stuff!" I'm told it will be broadcast around 12.30pm today. Tune in!


No evidence that plain packaging affects the number of young people smoking

A report published today suggests that 300,000 smokers in Britain may quit by May 2018 as a result of plain packaging.

According to the BBC:

The Cochrane Review team ... estimated that the number of people who smoked in the UK could go down by 0.5% by May 2018, although they said the current evidence was limited [my emphasis].

The findings were backed up by a report from the Australian government, which showed a similar drop in smoking prevalence - 0.55% - following the introduction of plain packaging there in 2012.

Naturally this has been seized upon by anti-smoking campaigners. Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, told the Sun:

"Standard packs are a landmark public health policy the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail to prevent. As evidence grows it is easy to see why.

"Smokers already saying they feel differently about their pack of cigarettes and in years to come we expect to see fewer young people smoking as they are no longer seduced by glitzy, brightly coloured packs."

I don't know if Deborah bothered to read the report but on this point co-author Jamie Hartmann-Boyce is absolutely clear. There was no evidence, she said, that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking.

Think about that for a minute. How many times were we told that the raison d'etre for introducing plain packaging was to reduce youth smoking rates by deterring young people from smoking?

And yet, four years after the introduction of plain packaging in Australia, there was no evidence that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking.

Judged on that issue alone plain packaging has been a monumental failure.

Giles Roca, director general of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, summed it up nicely when he told the BBC:

"This report destroys the rationale for the introduction of plain packaging by finding no evidence that it actually acts a deterrent to young people in taking up smoking - this was at the core of the government's and health campaigners' argument for its introduction."

Instead there are desperate references to a "six per cent increase in people trying to give up smoking" and an "increase in calls to quit smoking helplines".

Talk about grasping at straws.

Forest, btw, is quoted in both the BBC and Guardian reports.

Update: The BBC appears to have made a subtle change to its report, presumably at the request of Deborah Arnott or the authors of the review.

Whether it was prompted by the headline of this post, who knows, but I'm happy to clear things up.

If I remember the BBC report originally read:

There was no evidence that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking, she [Jamie Hartmann-Boyce] said.

Now it reads:

However, there were no studies showing whether changing the packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking.

A subtle difference.

Hartman-Boyce's name has also disappeared from the amended version. I'm pretty sure the original report quoted her because I noted that she was referred to as the 'co-author'.

Rather than a direct quote the BBC report paraphrased what she said and I suspect that's where the 'error' crept in.

My headline remains accurate however because, whichever way you spin it, studies or no studies, there is no evidence that plain packaging affects the number of young people smoking.

Like it or not, Deborah, that is an undisputed fact.


Smokers can be fit too!

According to the organisers of yesterday's London Marathon, 40,382 people took part.

I wonder how many were smokers? Theoretically, given that 19 per cent of the adult population in Britain smoke, there may have been as many as 7,672 smokers on the starting line.

I accept there may have been fewer but logic suggests that there must have been several hundred (at least) who were among those who successfully ran the 26.2 mile course.

The truth, as we know, is that a great many smokers are perfectly fit and healthy and are capable of the same physical deeds as any non-smoker.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, a friend of mine was recently part of a small team that set off from Barneo Ice Camp, a Russian-operated drift station on the frozen Arctic Ocean, to walk to the geographic North Pole.

They began their trek on April 4 and reached their destination six days later (see above), having walked 120km on ice, much of it in temperatures below minus 30 degrees Centigrade.

Expeditions like that rarely get any publicity nowadays. Like the climbing of Everest there are so many people doing it the feat has lost its allure.

In this instance however my friend's achievement was mentioned by the Irish Times which reported that:

The expedition camped, each participant pulled a pulk or sledge weighing 40kg, and lived on freeze-dried food, cooked with ice that took several hours to melt.

See Wicklow climbers celebrate arrival at North Pole with Scotch and cake.

But here's the point of this story. When my friend returned home he told me that not one but at least two of the team were smokers, including one of the guides.

The other was my friend's tent mate who thought nothing of smoking inside the tent.

In spite of this nobody died ("The pork scratchings and Kendal mint cake were much more dangerous," said my friend) and the entire team successfully achieved their mission to reach the North Pole on foot.

I mention this only because it bucks the current orthodoxy that implies that smoking and serious physical achievements are incompatible and anyone who smokes is bound to be a physical wreck, sooner or later.

The truth is far more complicated than that but we live in a world where few people are interested in nuance, least of all tobacco control, and everything has to be black or white, good or bad.

I bet there were hundreds of runners gasping for a fag after the London Marathon yesterday. Something however tells me that if they did light up they won't be featured in any reports of the race.

Instead they will be airbrushed from history – just like Churchill's signature cigar in this famous photograph.

See also: Smoking and climbing and Smokers' lungs can help at high altitude says climbing expert.


Guest post: John Mallon on tour

John Mallon (above), Forest's spokesman in Ireland, has just finished his latest media tour.

Inspired by the The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers, the study by the Centre for Substance Use Research, the theme was 'Smoking: Pleasure or Addiction?'.

Sometimes of course events take over and an interview swings in a different direction. That was certainly the case when John appeared on Ireland AM (TV3), Ireland's version of Good Morning Britain, but more often than not we were able to set the agenda.

Local radio is very important in Ireland, hence these tours which John has been doing since 2011. Here's the full list of interviews he conducted between 3-17 April followed by a guest post on the subject:

Monday 3rd April - Galway
Galway Bay FM - Keith Finnegan Show
Galway Independent

Tuesday 4th April - Kerry/Tralee
Radio Kerry - Talk About with Deirdre Walsh
The Kerryman newspaper

Friday 7th April - Waterford
WLR FM - Deise Today
Beat 102/103FM - news report
Tipp FM - telephone interview

Monday 10th April - Athlone/Tullamore/Naas
Midlands 103FM - Midlands Today

Tuesday 11th April - Dublin
TV3 - Ireland AM
Newstalk - Pat Kenny Show

Thursday 13th April - Kilkenny
KCLR Radio

Tuesday 17th April - Cork
Red FM - Neil Prendeville Show


Forest Ireland remains the sole voice of protest for smokers in Ireland so it is incumbent on us to make that voice heard as much as we can. For that reason we try to mount an annual tour of radio stations around the country.

The theme this time was 'Smoking: Pleasure or Addiction?' which was inspired by 'The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers', an excellent study conducted by the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow and funded by Forest UK.

The findings were sufficiently interesting to justify a tour based on that report alone. After all, tobacco control campaigners love to argue that smokers hate smoking and 70 per cent want to quit. Well, 95 per cent of the 600 smokers who took part in the CSUR study said they smoked for "pleasure" and 77 per cent had no intention of quitting. That alone has profound implications for the Irish Government's target of a "tobacco-free Ireland" within ten years.

This year we began in Galway before heading for Limerick. Sadly Limerick couldn't accommodate us on the day so we continued to Tralee and then Waterford before moving on to Tullamore, Dublin, Kilkenny and, finally, my home city of Cork.

I appeared live on the Keith Finnegan Show on Galway FM and was also interviewed by the Galway Independent. I found Keith very down to earth and practical as well as welcoming. Deirdre on Radio Kerry is always a pleasure to speak to. She makes her guests relax and feel at home. Tadgh at the Kerryman newspaper was intense and serious and took studious notes. Eamon Keane at WLR in Waterford asked some hard questions but was fair and disinclined to judge the issue with observations of his own.

It's always refreshing to be interviewed by an impartial presenter. Speaking of which, Fran Curry on Tipp FM in Clonmel added humour to the debate as he and I speculated on which of us would end up paying the hospital bills of the other!

Will Faulkner on Midlands FM in Tullamore is an insightful guy who had the awareness that at least a quarter of his listeners were smokers and he was open-minded as a result.

Dublin began with an interview on Ireland AM TV3 at some ungodly hour of the morning. Joining me on the couch was none other than Dr Patrick Doorley, chairman of ASH Ireland. Although I've crossed swords with him over the phone I've never have the pleasure of shaking his hand, something I put to rights in the make-up room.

"Dr Doorley, I believe," said I, marching over with my hand out. This miserable looking suit is the chief voice of tobacco control in Ireland today.

I knew the chief presenter, Mark Cagney, from years ago and he gave me a huge welcome. When we went on set however it became clear that Mark's side-kick, Sinéad Desmond, would be doing the interview.

The previous day the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had announced to a breathless nation that there are now more ex-smokers than smokers in Ireland. She started with me and Forest's reaction to the HSE figures. Then Doorley had his say and trotted out the usual spin.

Then it was back to me which gave me the chance to highlight aspects of The Pleasure of Smoking report. Doorley got the last word, rubbishing the study as lightweight and contrived. Interestingly I offered him the hard copy I had with me but he said he had already studied it.

A tetchy interview with LMFM Louth followed. Once again I was debating with the good doctor. At one point while Doorley was making a point, he went into a prolonged coughing fit, something the listener might have expected from me instead. Naturally I had the good manners to remain silent.

After that I had to leg it to Newstalk, Ireland's leading independent national radio station, for an appointment on The Pat Kenny Show. Of all the presenters I have encountered over the years Pat is the most polished and professional of all. He has an analytical brain and is one of those people who makes you the absolute centre of his attention while you are with him. If you're honest and open with him Pat will guide you along but wo' betide the bullshitter. He has no patience with that.

The one and only time I was previously invited on KCLR in Kilkenny I was bullied and almost hounded out of the studio by a very, ahem, unsympathetic presenter. She's now retired and the new man in the chair is John Masterson.

John and I had ten minutes shooting the breeze before we went on air. During this intermission he told me that although he didn't smoke himself he had no objection to others enjoying it. Thus lulled into a false sense of security I was unprepared for his combative style. He gave me a hard time but did finish by observing that, "Well, I don't know how you do it, John, but I'm looking at a fine big healthy man opposite me." You never know what to expect, do you?

Though I wanted to keep The Pleasure of Smoking study as the focal point of each interview other issues inevitably came up including plain packaging, social exclusion and e-cigarettes. (As someone who smokes and vapes I have first hand experience of the merits of both.)

All in all I didn't sense quite the same hostility towards smokers that I have experienced in the past. Of course it's harder than ever to get a smoking room in a hotel, although I did manage it. But I used an e-cig where cigarettes were unwelcome and it occurred to me more than once that it's not illegal to puff on one in a studio either.

If I'd done that in Kilkenny I bet John Masterson would have required smelling salts to come round.

PS. My favourite pint of a week is on Sunday, 12.30 to 2.30pm, in my local. I usually meet up with a guy called Noel, a smoker and a big shot in the insurance industry. Noel and his mates love to hear me on radio and he told me last week that he'd heard me on a replay of Pat Kenny. He'd also heard bits of it on trailers promoting Newstalk.

Even better, Noel was listening to Pat Kenny interview some environmental public health guy and Kenny began a question with, "I had John Mallon from Forest in with me earlier and he said ..." Noel couldn't remember anything else no matter how much I pressed him but it's nice to have one of the nation's leading broadcasters quoting us, is it not?