WHO throws its weight behind plain packaging

It's World No Tobacco Day today.

Promoted by the World Health Organisation, this annual event is "intended to encourage a 24-hour period of abstinence from all forms of tobacco consumption around the globe".

Each year there's a theme. In 2014 it was 'Raise taxes on tobacco'. Last year it was 'Stop illicit trade of tobacco products' which was ironic given that raising taxes on tobacco fuels illicit trade.

This year WHO is calling on "all countries" to 'Get ready for plain packaging'. Brussels, naturally, is a focal point with not one but two events at the European Parliament.

'Plain-packaging to protect our youth: Progress made, challenges ahead' is a half-day conference hosted by the European Respiratory Society (ERS) and the European Network for Smoking Prevention (ENSP).

That's followed, this evening, by a World No Tobacco Day cocktail reception.

The 2016 World No Tobacco Day reception celebrates the entry into force of the Tobacco Products Directive and the possibilities it has created for Member States to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products.

Hosted by Linda McAvan MEP it also features the "announcement and celebration of WHO World No Tobacco Day 2016 Awards" (see previous post).

By coincidence I shall be in Brussels this evening but I have other plans.

In the meantime click here to read an international coalition letter to Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, director of WHO, opposing plain packaging.

It's signed by 47 organisations including Forest.


Silly awards season

Shhhh .... is that the sound of tumbleweed I hear?

The announcement that public health minister Jane Ellison has been awarded a medal by the World Health Organisation ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Tuesday hasn't impressed news editors in the UK.

To date there has been zero coverage of this earth-shattering 'news', despite the best efforts of ASH and Cancer Research UK who both issued cringe-inducing press releases on Friday.

It makes you wonder why they bothered issuing statements but perhaps the mainstream media wasn't their intended target.

As I noted here, ASH CEO Deborah Arnott was effusive in her praise for Ellison whose department currently gives ASH £150k a year:

“Despite relentless tobacco industry lobbying the Public Health Minister made sure that the government proceeded with the introduction of standardised ‘plain’ packaging of cigarettes.

Her commitment to tackling the harm caused by tobacco is unquestionable and we are delighted that her work has been recognised by the World Health Organisation.”

CRUK added its own commendation, revealing in the process that it was they who nominated Ellison for the award. According to Chief executive Sir Harpal Kumar:

“Plain, standardised packaging to protect children from tobacco marketing is a monumental victory for public health and this international recognition from the World Health Organisation is well deserved.

Cancer Research UK nominated Jane Ellison for her personal determination and spirit in fighting the vested interests of the tobacco industry and making the UK the second country in the world to introduce this legislation which will save thousands of lives.

We look forward to other countries following suit and future generations being spared the devastation caused by tobacco.”

You can read the full list of award winners here – World No Tobacco Day Awards 2016.

They include Professors Mike Daube and Melanie Wakefield.

Daube is a mate of the infamous Simon Chapman. Like Chapman he's been vocal in praising the outcome of plain packaging in Australia.

A couple of years ago I was interviewed with him on a radio programme. I was standing on a railway platform and at the exact moment he started speaking an express train roared through the station.

I didn't hear a word he said, which was probably just as well.

Melanie Wakefield is another Australian notable for her work in tobacco control. I've written about her before here.

Previous award winners are listed here.

In recent years they've included Dr James Reilly, minister of health, Ireland who I have written about several times, including here.

Other award winners include Alisa (Ailsa) Rutter, director of FRESH/Smokefree North East (UK) and our old friend Stephen Williams, the former Lib Dem MP for Bristol West who helped launch the Plain Packs Protect campaign.

Cancer Research UK was acknowledged in 2012 with an award to Jean King, director of Tobacco Control at CRUK.

In 2011, to mark the group's 40th anniversary, the work of ASH was also recognised and in a touching ceremony a WHO award was presented to Deborah Arnott by the then public health minister Anne Milton (see I think I'm going to be sick).

That year there were also awards for the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention
and Smoke Free Partnership. But more of them tomorrow.

Meanwhile, on the subject of awards, let's not forget that it's only 14 months since the Department of Health's tobacco control team received an award for 'Exemplary Leadership by a Government Ministry'.

As I reported here the 2015 Luther L Terry Awards were presented by the American Cancer Society at a ceremony on March 19 in Abu Dhabi at the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health.

More pertinently public health minister Jane Ellison tweeted:

And who should be included in that celebratory tweet? Why, none other than Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH!

It's a small, small world.


ASH "delighted" by WHO award for public health minister

It's World No Tobacco Day on Tuesday.

It's never been a big event in this country, partly because we have so many other anti-smoking initiatives. ASH however like to promote it as best they can.

Today, for example, they've issued a press release:

Public Health Minister Jane Ellison awarded WHO medal

Public Health Minister Jane Ellison MP has been awarded the prestigious WHO Director-General Special Award to mark World No Tobacco Day. The award recognises her political leadership and determination in overseeing the introduction of a major public health reform, standardised ‘plain’ packaging of tobacco, and her ongoing commitment to tobacco control ...

Responding to the Minister’s award, Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said:

“Despite relentless tobacco industry lobbying the Public Health Minister made sure that the government proceeded with the introduction of standardised ‘plain’ packaging of cigarettes. Her commitment to tackling the harm caused by tobacco is unquestionable and we are delighted that her work has been recognised by the World Health Organisation.”

Click here to read it in full. (Forest gets a mention, which is nice of them.)

We've responded as follows:

Health minister should decline WHO award, say campaigners

The smokers' group Forest has urged public health minister Jane Ellison to "politely decline" an award she has been given by the World Health Organisation to mark World No Tobacco Day [Monday 31st May].

Simon Clark, director of Forest, said: "No politician should accept an award from any tobacco control organisation.

"In order to be seen to be fair, impartial and objective, Jane Ellison should politely but publicly decline this dubious accolade."

Responding to comments by Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, he added: "I'm not surprised ASH are delighted by the award. After all, they receive funding from Ellison's department!"

Full press release here.

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't ASH who nominated Ellison for this award. They're pretty good at lobbying government so lobbying WHO to give an award to the minister they lobbied to introduce plain packaging in the UK seems a pretty natural thing to do.

Btw, did anyone else get the irony of "Despite relentless tobacco industry lobbying the Public Health Minister made sure that the government proceeded with the introduction of standardised ‘plain’ packaging of cigarettes"?

Another, more accurate, interpretation is:

"Following relentless lobbying by the tobacco control industry the Public Health Minister made sure that the government proceeded with the introduction of standardised ‘plain’ packaging of cigarettes."

Anyway I'll come back to the subject of World No Tobacco Day later. There are one or two events taking place in Brussels on Tuesday to mark the occasion.

By coincidence I'm going to be in Brussels on Tuesday myself. Perhaps I'll run into Deborah. Or Jane.

Watch this space.

Update: Seems it was Cancer Research UK that nominated Ellison for the award:

"Cancer Research UK nominated Jane Ellison for her personal determination and spirit in fighting the vested interests of the tobacco industry and making the UK the second country in the world to introduce this legislation which will save thousands of lives." Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK


Dan Donovan: "Brooding cocktail of coal black imagery and nocturnal poetry"

If you've attended Forest events with any regularity you'll be familiar with Dan Donovan (right).

Dan is usually present is his role as a professional photographer but he's also a film-maker, graphic designer and musician.

Over 30 years Dan has recorded twelve albums. The last four have been recorded with his two-piece garage band King Kool.

Released in February, his thirteenth album, Dan Donovan 12_12, Acoustics Sessions, was a return – as the title suggests – to his acoustic roots.

Revisiting his back catalogue, Dan chose one song from each of his previous twelve albums and recorded new versions. According to his website:

Live performances throughout the UK, Belgium and Netherlands followed the release of the album.

International folk and blues magazine Rock’n’Reel wrote “Twelve shots of howling murder blues, part growling part soaring” and gave the CD a high 4 star rating.

FATEA magazine called the album “a tribute not only to the quality of Donovan’s writing but also to his performance - a brooding cocktail of coal black imagery and nocturnal poetry.”

Dan has now combined his photography with lyrics from the album for a book that also offers insights into each song.

The book launch takes place on Friday (May 29) at The Angles Theatre, Wisbech. As well as wine, visuals and song, there will be music videos from the album.

I can't make it unfortunately but if you're in the area and want to go, Dan would be delighted to see you. RSVP info@battenberg.biz.

PS. You can preview the book here.


Smoke On The Water 2016 – register now

We began promoting our annual boat party in earnest yesterday and within hours over 100 guests had registered.

Smoke On The Water 2016 takes place on Wednesday 29th June, the week after the EU referendum, so as one parliament based person commented, "I may need an unwind by then."

As usual guests board the boat, a Mississippi style paddle-steamer, at Westminster Pier from 7.00pm.

At 7.45 we'll leave the pier and cruise down river to Canary Wharf, returning to Festival Pier where guests disembark at 10.00.

There will be complimentary drinks for the first hour, cash bar after that.

Smoking and vaping are permitted on the rear open deck and the two covered walkways either side of the upper deck.

If the weather is nice The Elizabethan benefits from a unique sliding roof that gives passengers a fantastic view of London's skyline and the many famous bridges we pass under.

One guest registered after our event email was forwarded to him with this personal recommendation:

"Thought this would be right up your street. Their events are always very good and what more would a Tory smoker want than this?"

Unconvinced? Here are some more comments:

"I'm really looking forward to it."

"Sounds great fun."

"I'll be there!"

"Can't wait!"

Click here for full details. Places are limited so advance registration is essential.

Finally, the picture on the Smoke On The Water poster (top right) was taken by Dan Donovan at last year's event, together with these equally fabulous photos.


Axa – what would Orwell say?

According to the BBC yesterday:

Axa, one of the world's biggest insurers, will stop investing in the tobacco industry and sell investments worth more than €1.7bn (£1.3bn).

It said investing in the sector made no sense given that smoking killed some six million people a year.

The move by Axa is an attempt to support government efforts to reduce the number of people who smoke.

The reported added that:

Axa wanted to send a signal to other institutional investors and encourage others to follow suit.

According to incoming chief executive Thomas Buberl:

"The business case is positive," he said. "It makes no sense for us to continue our investments within the tobacco industry. The human cost of tobacco is tragic - its economic cost is huge."

Spokesmen for tobacco control were delighted:

Cary Adams, chief executive of the Union for International Cancer Control, said: "We need companies like Axa to signal that investing in an industry which kills its customers is simply the wrong thing to do, and this announcement ... is a milestone step in the right direction."

See Axa stubs out €1.7bn tobacco industry investment (BBC News).

The announcement – which coincided with the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva – has been very widely reported, as Axa no doubt intended. You can't buy that publicity – well, you can but it would cost a fortune.

Funny enough it reminded me of the announcement by the UK pub chain Wetherspoon in 2005 that it was going to ban smoking in every one of its 650 pubs.

Like Axa, Wetherspoon got a huge amount of free publicity promoting themselves as innovative, socially responsible pioneers. According to chairman Tim Martin:

"An increasing percentage of the population are giving up smoking and a significant number of people are staying away from pubs and restaurants because they are too smoky."

He said the firm had pioneered non-smoking areas in its outlets, but felt "it is the right time to go one step further".

Like Axa, Wetherspoon also got the thumbs up from the tobacco control industry. According to the Telegraph:

The decision, which pre-empts the Government's limited clampdown on smoking in pubs, bars and restaurants in 2008, was welcomed as a "bold move" by health campaigners.

JD Wetherspoon has pioneered no-smoking areas in its bars and lounges. Action on Smoking and Health said the move was a "significant development" and urged other pub chains and companies to follow.

Deborah Arnott, the director of ASH, said the pub was responding to customer demand. She said: "This is very encouraging news and we're sure that now Wetherspoon has set the trend, other pub chains will soon follow suit. It shows that the Government has nothing to fear from introducing legislation to make all pubs smoke-free."

Oddly enough other pub chains didn't follow suit. In fact, within a year Wetherspoon had abandoned plans to ban smoking in all its pubs after a "backlash" from customers.

In March 2006, a month after MPs voted to ban smoking in pubs and clubs, The Independent reported:

The pubs group JD Wetherspoon has shelved plans to turn its entire chain non-smoking until the Government ban comes into force, after seeing a steep drop in sales in venues that have been converted.

Wetherspoon backtracked from plans to turn its entire 655 managed pub estate non-smoking by May, and decided to wait until the middle of next year when its rivals will also have to be smoke-free under a UK-wide ban.

We'll have to see if other companies follow Axa's lead but I'm guessing most won't.

Anyway I hadn't intended to comment on the story (investment is one of many things I know nothing about) until the Guardian invited Forest to say something.

I hummed and hawed and then made a rookie mistake. The quote I sent them was too long and the message I really wanted to get across was at the end, not the beginning.

Inevitably (I don't blame the paper at all because I gave them permission to edit it) only the first two sentences were used:

"Axa's decision is a slap in the face for millions of adults who choose to smoke.

"By supporting the government's anti-smoking programme the company is endorsing some of the most illiberal tobacco control policies in the world.

The full quote went on:

"These policies are being used to denormalise a legal product and stigmatise the consumer.

"It's all very well taking the moral high ground but Axa would do well to remember that freedom of choice and personal responsibility are essential factors in a free society.

"Take those away and you are left with governments and corporations dictating how ordinary people live their lives."

I didn't mention George Orwell's 1984 but that was what I had in mind.

Naturally ASH had their say too. According to CEO Deborah Arnott:

“The withdrawal of one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, Axa, from tobacco investments shows just how morally repugnant the tobacco industry has become, and we hope others will follow suit,” she said.

“However, despite the lethal nature of the product, tobacco remains one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Until we make smoking history it is likely to remain so.”

See Axa to divest €1.8bn of tobacco investments (Guardian).

The idea that tobacco control is some kind of moral crusade is nothing new (the temperance movement was built on the idea) but I doubt that's the reason for Axa's decision.

Giant corporations are rarely driven by altruism, misguided or otherwise. The bottom line is they want to make money and to do that they have develop a competitive advantage over their rivals.

In its way Axa's policy on tobacco investment is no different to that of Wetherspoon eleven years ago. They're testing the policy to see if it works, dressing it up in a cloak of self-righteousness.

Well, Wetherspoon's policy failed and it needed the intervention of government to enforce a measure that ordinary people, voting with their feet and wallets, had rejected.

Axa operate on a different level where ordinary people are mere ants by comparison. To them we're just a number. Sound familiar?

Update: Last night I received an email from a journalist in Spain who had read my "very interesting" comment in the Guardian.

He had two questions:

1. Do you think that this decision could fix a trend for other big companies that will follow this path for publicity reasons?

2. Do you think that this kind of movement is a shortcut to avoid a broader philosophical debate about smoking and free will?

In response to the latter I send him the bit of the quote the Guardian didn't use. In response to the first question I wrote:

The first announcement will get headlines but with every subsequent announcement there will be diminishing returns so I don't see this becoming a trend for other companies seeking publicity.

A lot of people would also consider that to be jumping on the bandwagon and that can have a negative rather than a positive impact on a company's image.

I didn't go into any detail but he's touched on an important point – there does need to be a broader philosophical debate about smoking and free will.

But that's for another time.


Oh dear, did the DH really think this through?

ASH is quick to claim that plain packaging has the public's support.

They were at it again this morning when I was on BBC Radio Leicester with Amanda Sandford.

Well, I'm not suggesting a self-selecting poll on the Daily Mirror website is any more accurate but it does suggest a degree of scepticism about the measure.

Combined with an hilarious report on Vice.com at the weekend (What do smokers think of the UK's new sludge coloured cigarette packets?) and you do have to question the sanity of ASH and their friends at the Department of Health.

Do they have any idea how ordinary people think?

Whoever thought plain packaging was a good idea is beginning to look rather foolish.


What next, tobacco retailer licensing?

Most of you probably have lives so this may have passed you by.

For people like me however Friday was the closing date for submissions to an HMRC consultation on Tobacco Illicit Trade Protocol – licensing of equipment and the supply chain.

The official description read:

This consultation is about Article 6 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) Protocol. The aim of the Protocol is to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products.

At Autumn Statement 2015 the government announced its intention to consult on Article 6 of the Protocol. Article 6 of the Protocol is concerned with registration or licensing of participants who trade in tobacco and tobacco products.

The consultation is seeking views on two aspects of Article 6:

– the mandatory control of tobacco manufacturing equipment
– whether the UK should license wholesalers, retailers, brokers etc of tobacco products

The government is keen to ensure that any response to the illicit tobacco trade is proportionate and does not add an undue administrative burden on business. It will therefore be seeking views from a wide range of stakeholders to establish clear evidence-based rationale for its decisions.

No decisions have yet been made in relation to whether parties in a supply chain should be licensed or whether some but not all parties should be licensed.

What should set alarm bells ringing for consumers (as well as retailers) is the suggestion that the UK should license retailers of tobacco products.

Curiously, though, the government doesn't seem interested in the views of the consumer. Section 2 of the consultation began:

Understanding your interest in this tobacco consultation

Businesses, organisations and individuals may have different perspectives and HMRC is interested in understanding the context of the answers you give to all the questions in this consultation.

– a tobacco retailer
– tobacco wholesaler
– a tobacco manufacturer
– a manufacturer of tobacco equipment
– a manufacturer of component parts of manufacturing equipment
– an importer/exporter of tobacco products
– an importer/exporter of tobacco manufacturing equipment
– a transporter/broker/warehouser of tobacco or manufacturing equipment
– a representative body – please specify
– a public health body or group
– Local Government (including Trading Standards) or other enforcement agency
– a member of the public
– Other: please specify

Consumers could, I guess, come under 'a member of the public' or 'other' but why not include 'consumer' as an actual category?

Undeterred, Forest submitted a five-page, 40-point letter on behalf of the consumer. Here are the first ten points:

1. Tobacco is a legal product and it would be wrong to introduce regulations that might unnecessarily restrict the number of legitimate tobacco retailers.

2. Tobacco retailer licensing would place an unnecessary administrative burden on legitimate retailers. It would discriminate against small and independent shops and some retailers could be forced to stop selling tobacco.

3. Current tobacco retailers denied a licence to sell tobacco could lose many of their regular customers. This in turn could force some retailers out of business. Such closures would affect not only customers who smoke but also non-smoking customers who might lose an important local facility.

4. A reduction in the number of retailers selling tobacco would unnecessarily inconvenience many adult smokers by forcing them to travel longer distances to buy tobacco.

5. To save them the inconvenience of these journeys it could encourage consumers to buy larger quantities of tobacco rather than, say, the single pack of cigarettes they might buy currently. This in turn could conceivably increase their consumption of tobacco.

6. Increasing the administrative burden on retailers could lead to higher prices as retailers pass the cost on to the consumer. Price increases could be added to non-tobacco products so the impact of licensing would unfairly hit non-smoking customers as well.

7. By making it difficult to buy tobacco close to someone’s home or place of work, the government will make it more attractive to buy tobacco on the black market.

8. Offered illicit cigarettes in a pub, for example, and it won’t only be the price that’s enticing. The fact that it’s so much more convenient because the local shop no longer sells tobacco could push many more people towards illicit tobacco.

9. There is no good reason we can think of why tobacco licensing should reduce illicit trade. People turn to the black market for one reason only – it’s much cheaper to buy illegal cigarettes than it is to purchase tobacco from legitimate, law-abiding retailers.

10. Tobacco licensing won’t change that. Instead, by potentially reducing the number of retailers selling tobacco, demand for illicit tobacco could increase because cost and convenience could combine to make black market tobacco even more attractive than it is already.

Tobacco licensing is being considered, apparently, as part of a wider programme to tackle illicit trade but as our response above makes clear there is no good reason why it should.

There are already laws to prosecute retailers who sell illicit tobacco. Why would tobacco retailer licensing deter anyone?

Trading Standards already have the power to prosecute shop owners who sell illicit tobacco. Councils can also revoke a premise's licence.

So enforce existing laws, don't introduce new ones that won't make any difference other than inconvenience legitimate, law-abiding retailers and consumers.

Call me cynical but I suspect the real motivation behind tobacco retailer licensing is not to tackle illicit trade but to reduce the number of retailers selling tobacco in order to make it more difficult for people to buy legal products. This is turn will force people to quit.

Anyway we concluded our submission with these three points:

38. We urge HMRC to enforce existing regulations rather than imposing new regulations on small businesses.

39. We also urge HMRC to put the needs of legitimate retailers and consumers first and not succumb to the demands of the tobacco control industry whose goal is to force smokers to quit regardless of whether they want to.

40. If adult consumers choose to purchase a legal product on which they pay a huge level of taxation, their lives should not be made unnecessarily difficult by the imposition of regulations that could conceivably fuel illicit trade and affect many more people including legitimate and hard-working retailers.

A summary of responses to the consultation will be published later this year. I'll keep you posted.

See also: The Government should reject tobacco retailer licensing and If the Government ignores tobacco retailers, regulation will be poorer for it (ConservativeHome).

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