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The benefits of gambling

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

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

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

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

See: Is gambling the new opium of the people?

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

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

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

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

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


Goodbye nanny state, hello nudge

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

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

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

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

Full article: Goodbye nanny state, hello nudge


Scottish Government delays tobacco display ban

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

I have issued this response on behalf of Forest:

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

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

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

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

See ASH Scotland's response.


Hong Kong phooey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What hope for smokers in Ireland?

In the words of John Mallon, Forest's representative in Ireland, "The fat man has announced the election date - 11th March 2011".

Yes, following weeks of speculation, Irish prime minister Brian Cowen has announced that the country will go to the polls in seven weeks. With the country in financial meltdown a great many political heads are expected to roll.

John writes:

"To give you the majority feeling on the ground, we have had this government, give or take, for the last 13 years. When they got in the economy was booming, inflation was very low, we had the Irish pound, jobs were becoming plentiful, U2 were on top of the world, Riverdance was just around the corner, Ireland was cool, Michael O'Leary was offering to fly us anywhere for 10p, Munster rugby was taking off, the popular Polish Pope was still there, as was our nodding President, Mary Robinson. Ireland was in the throes of its first Industrial Revolution based on big American IT and Big Pharma, and Temple Bar was getting into full swing. For a small country that never had a toe on the world stage, there was a real feelgood factor.

"Everything that has happened has deconstructed the lot. You have no idea of the desperation and anger that is rampant now. Everything Fianna Fail has done in the last 13 years now stinks, including the smoking ban ...

STOP PRESS (14:08): The BBC reports that Irish PM Brian Cowen  is stepping down as leader of the ruling Fianna Fail party "but will continue to run the government until the general election". Ironically Cowen is a smoker and a leading contender to replace him would be Michael Martin, the man whose greatest political achievement is said to be the introduction of the smoking ban in Ireland.


State of civil liberties in Britain today

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, has produced a book that I warmly recommend.

Published by Biteback, it's called Big Brother Watch: The state of civil liberties in modern Britain and it's available on Amazon and in the larger branches of Waterstone's, like this one in Piccadilly where I bought my copy on Thursday.

You will be familiar with the names of several contributors because they include a number of people who took part in our 2010 Voices of Freedom debates: Guy Herbert, No2ID; Mark Littlewood, IEA; Josie Appleton, Manifesto Club; Philip Johnston, author of Bad Laws: An Explosive Analysis of Britain’s Petty Rules, Health and Safety Lunacies and Madcap Laws; and Alex himself.

Another contributor is Brian Monteith, author of The Bully State: The End of Tolerance, published by The Free Society in 2009. There's also an essay by Simon Davies of Privacy International who has just completed a report commissioned by Forest that we hope to publish next month. Watch this space.

Update: Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club and a contributor to Big Brother Watch (above), has written a piece on the rebellion against the Spanish smoking ban. "It's quite heartening!" she tells me.


Smoke free cars? Thanks for the tips

A new study published this week in Scotland claimed that "Smoking in a car exposes a child passenger to dangerous levels of poisonous particles … and even opening a window doesn’t protect them".

The findings, we were told, are so stark that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC), which commissioned the study, has launched a high profile campaign "to persuade the thousands of Scots motorists who continue to smoke and endanger non-smoking passengers to make their cars smoke free".

According to the NHSGGC press release:

The study involved a child sized doll being fitted in a car seat with the very latest smoke monitoring equipment attached at the doll’s mouth so that precise measurements could be taken. The particles of tobacco poison were so high that they compared with the levels you would expect after being exposed to secondhand smoke in a busy smoke filled pub before the smoking ban.

Various "health experts" were wheeled out to comment on the "shocking" results. Surprisingly, no-one, not even Sheila Duffy, chief executive of ASH Scotland, called for a ban on smoking in cars, although I have no doubt that is their aim. Instead we were given some 'Tips for a smokefree car':

  • Try to always take smoking outside
  • Try to make your car a smokefree car at all times for everyone
  • Have a cigarette before and after your journey
  • On long journeys, stop, have a break and smoke outside the car
  • Remove car cigarette lighters
  • Clear out car ash trays
  • Display a window sticker 'Our Car is Smokefree' (Ugh!)

A summary of the report can be downloaded from the NHSGGC Smokefree Services website.

The Scotsman has the story, including a short quote from me, here: Don't smoke and drive - it's as toxic as a pub fug for your children, insist doctors.


Spot the difference

Welcome to the new-look blog. The old one was looking a bit of a dog's dinner so I thought it was time to do something about it.

I tried changing the design template on the old blog but with all those images to accommodate it looked even worse. There was only one solution - create a brand new, stripped down, clutter-free site.

And here it is. It's not finished so expect a few tweaks here and there.

In order to keep the old site live - for archive purposes - I have given this one a slightly different URL, replacing It's not ideal because it means there are now two sites instead of one but if you need to look for something on the old site just click on the Archive button on the top menu bar.

Apart from that the content, including the house rules, will be much as before. I don't have many rules:

  • My pet hates include long, rambling comments that repeat ad nauseum what we've already discussed on this blog (and elsewhere) for months if not years. I like to restrict comments to 300 words, which I think is generous, but it's not a hard and fast rule. If you've got something to say and do it well, I'll overlook it. On the other hand, comments in excess of a thousand words are, frankly, taking liberties. That's not a comment, that's a speech. If it's any good I'll publish it as a guest blog, or I suggest you offer it to someone else.
  • Another pet hate is a comment that has nothing to do with the original post or the preceding comments. This is a blog not a message board. It's rude and more often than not it kills the thread.
What else? Oh, yes:
  • I can take criticism but I won't be stalked or bullied via my own blog. It's only happened once or twice in four years, including quite recently, but it wasn't very pleasant. And while I welcome comments from all sides of a debate, I won't tolerate personally abusive comments aimed at people who, for example, choose to smoke. I like a good argument (preaching to the converted was never my thing), but this is a smoker-friendly site and I won't tolerate intolerance.

My favourite comments are those that are short, informative and entertaining. If you remember that I'm sure we'll become (or remain) good friends.

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