Smokers Are Voters Too

Diary of a Political Campaign

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Wednesday
Apr152015

Cameron's 'good life' undermined by excessive state intervention

Got to hand it to Nigel Farage.

According to the Telegraph this morning, Ukip will today unveil an election manifesto that includes amending the smoking ban to allow separate, well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs.

The party would also repeal the plain packaging law.

Meanwhile the Tory manifesto, published yesterday, contains the following gratuitous reference to plain packaging and the tobacco display ban:

We are helping people to stay healthy by ending the open display of tobacco in shops, introducing plain-packaged cigarettes and funding local authority public health budgets.

That's quite a kick in the teeth for the 104 Tory MPs, most of whom are standing again, who voted against plain packaging only five weeks ago.

Many of them also voted against the display ban.

Imagine having to promote a manifesto that includes policies you fundamentally disagree with.

Was it really necessary to include like badges of honour policies that have already been passed by parliament?

The display ban wasn't even supported by the Conservatives until this parliament. The legislation - opposed by the Tories in opposition - was introduced by the last Labour government.

Still, at least we know where we stand. In the name of 'health' expect more nanny state policies from a Cameron-led government.

The result is I am slowly coming round to the opinion, expressed by several people on this blog, that a vote for any Conservative MP (even small state Conservatives) will merely encourage the party to pursue more interventionist policies.

As for Ukip, I have a lot of time for Farage, Suzanne Evans, Stephen Woolfe, Douglas Carswell and one or two others, but the pool of talent is shallow.

The MEP who represented the party in the Scottish leaders' debate in Aberdeen last week was an embarrassment and there are too many like him.

I've never had this quandary before. I've voted Conservative ever since I was old enough to vote in 1979.

I don't consider myself a floating voter and I'm not losing sleep over it (the election campaign is far too boring for that), but I'll say this - Ukip's manifesto has made me think.

Tuesday
Apr142015

MPs who need your vote

Are you sitting comfortably? Here's the bad news.

I've been doing a little research and no fewer than 16 of the top 40 marginal seats held by the Conservative party (and targeted by Labour) were represented by MPs (now candidates) who voted against plain packaging in March.

In contrast, only eleven of the top 40 Tory seats targeted by Labour are being fought by MPs/candidates who voted in favour of plain packaging.

In other words, a substantial number of MPs who are naturally opposed to excessive regulation could lose their seats. For the record they are:

Jackie Doyle-Price, Thurrock
Mark Spencer, Sherwood
Nigel Mills, Amber Valley
Paul Uppal, Wolverhampton South West
John Stevenson, Carlisle
David Morris, Morecambe & Lunesdale
Karl McCartney, Lincoln
Richard Fuller, Bedford
Simon Kirby, Brighton Kemptown
Mary MacLeod, Brentford & Isleworth
Nick de Bois, Enfield North
Ben Gummer, Ipswich
David Nuttall, Bury North
Chris Skidmore, Kingswood
Stephen Mosley, City of Chester
Esther McVey, Wirral West

As for the Tory candidates who supported plain packaging and are currently hanging on to their own marginal seats, they are:

Matthew Offord, Hendon
Peter Aldous, Waveney
Stuart Andrew, Pudsey
James Morris, Halesowen & Rowley Regis
Marcus Jones, Nuneaton
Richard Graham, Gloucester
Michael Ellis, Northampton North
Paul Maynard, Blackpool North & Cleveleys
Gavin Barwell, Croydon Central
Robin Walker, Worcester
Kris Hopkins, Keighley

I have focussed on Tory marginals targeted by Labour because they appear more vulnerable than Tory marginals targeted by the Lib Dems.

The elephant in the room is of course Ukip. Given that both Ukip MPs (Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless) voted against plain packaging and the party is opposed to the smoking ban, the attraction of voting for the party - if you're libertarian on these issues - is obvious.

The problem is that a vote for Ukip in certain constituencies could result in the loss of some very good MPs who are naturally opposed to Big Government.

Personally, if my MP's voting record suggested a consistent commitment to small government and less regulation I would support them regardless of the party they represented.

If, on the other hand, their voting record indicated otherwise I would vote for someone else.

What I'm trying to say is, don't destroy the careers of politicians like David Nuttall or Karl McCartney just because you want to 'hurt' David Cameron.

Likewise, if your natural inclination is to vote for one of the mainstream parties, make an exception for the likes of Carswell and Reckless. I'm not a fan of defectors, mid parliament especially, but on the basis of their voting records they deserve our support.

See also the full list of MPs who voted against plain packaging in 2015 and the list of MPs who voted in favour of David Nuttall's ten-minute rule bill to amend the smoking ban in 2010.

Monday
Apr132015

Lest politicians forget, smokers are voters too

We've said many times and I'll say it again, smokers are voters too.

The problem is, relatively few people vote for a candidate on the basis of a single issue, especially in a general election. That's why single issue candidates (including former directors of Forest!) invariably lose their deposits.

Anti-smoking policies may annoy and even anger millions of people but they don't affect the outcome of elections. That appears to be the view of strategists like Lynton Crosby and it's hard to disagree with their analysis.

There are several reasons for this. One, smokers are a minority of the population. Two, even smokers (the majority of them anyway) have other priorities – the economy, the NHS, immigration, all the usual issues.

Nevertheless it's not beyond the bounds of possibility to think that smokers (and tolerant non-smokers like myself) could make a difference in a handful of seats up and down the country.

Beginning tomorrow therefore I'm going to feature a series of target seats where the candidate standing for re-election is either an avowed anti-smoking campaigner or has voted consistently in favour of the more extreme tobacco control policies (smoking ban, display ban, plain packaging).

After the election we'll see how many of these anti-smoking candidates have retained their seats.

Sadly the few that do lose their seats will probably be replaced by candidates who are equally anti-smoking, but let's give it a go …

Below: Forest campaign ads that appeared on ad vans at the Labour party conference in 2006

Monday
Apr132015

Debating Europe: Is it time to ban branding on cigarette packs?

A couple of months ago I was asked to take part in an online debate about plain packaging.

The invitation read:

Would you be available to answer a few questions from European citizens on the enforcement of plain cigarette packs across Europe in a short Skype or telephone interview in the coming days, as part of the successful online discussion platform Debating Europe, launched in 2011 in partnership with the European Parliament, Microsoft, Gallup and Skype.

Debating Europe is designed to engage citizens and policymakers in an ongoing conversation on a range of vital issues shaping our future. It's based on a simple model: citizens ask questions, policymakers and experts respond. It’s proved to be a popular idea: in under three years, it's built-up a 750,000 strong community of citizens and over 195,000 Facebook and Twitter followers from across Europe to debate with its leaders. To date a selection of 35,000 questions have been put to over 900 key policymakers and experts. Please click here for our debates.

We plan to publish a debate looking at the enforcement of plain cigarette packs across Europe in the second half of March and we would be very happy to have your contribution in this. We would ask three or four questions on behalf of European citizens and the interview would just take 5-10 minutes.

After a couple of false starts we agreed a date for the interview – March 12. My inquisitor, Naomi, was very charming and after we overcame one or two technical hitches we rattled through the questions in around ten minutes.

The debate, I was told, would be posted online within a couple of weeks but 14 days passed and nothing appeared.

On March 26 I emailed: 'Just curious to know when the plain packaging debate will be posted.'

To be fair they responded immediately: 'We are planning on publishing the debate early next week (Mon or Tuesday). I will send you a link when it’s up!'

As of this morning there was still no sign of it so I sent another email: 'I'm curious why the debate on plain packaging has still not been published. Any reason for this?'

Back came this response:

Thank you for helping in arranging the interview! [Your] answers on cigarette packaging have been published in today’s post on Debating Europe: Is it time for health warnings to replace all branding on cigarette packs?

The article has been promoted on Facebook and Twitter, and is open for citizens to comment through our comments section here.

The 'debate' is effectively between Eoin Bradley, 'advocacy officer' at the Irish Cancer Society, and Axel Gietz, director of group corporate affairs at Imperial Tobacco.

My contribution is restricted to answering a more general question: 'Is there a public health argument to be made for trying to reduce the number of smokers in Europe?'

As for the delay in publishing, I'm not a conspiracy theorist but I do wonder if Debating Europe struggled to find tobacco control advocates willing to debate the issue.

After all, Brussels-based lobbyists are not known for their commitment to open, transparent debate. (See EU couldn't make it up.)

Anyway you can read/view the 'debate' here: Is it time for health warnings to replace all branding on cigarette packs?.

The nice people at Debating Europe invite comments so please take a moment to respond.

PS. My interview was conducted via Skype on an iPad. It was the first time I've used Skype on an iPad and only the second time I've used Skype at all so the picture is, how shall I say, less than flattering.

I'll try and do better next time.

Sunday
Apr122015

Commonsense and decency sacrificed on the altar of public health

Our 'caring' health service took another hit today.

The Scottish Sun reports that:

A patient desperate for a cigarette makes a mockery of new NHS anti-smoking rules – by standing at a hospital entrance with a drip in one hand and fag in the other.

The onesie-wearing woman was one of many we caught puffing away just days after ciggies were banned at all healthcare centres.

The report, Smoked Out, makes the point that "the [no smoking] rules are not yet enforceable by law", hence the number of people found to be flouting them.

Others are obeying the recently erected signs:

At [Glasgow] Royal Infirmary, patients in pyjamas, slippers and dressing gowns made their way to the pavement outside the hospital before starting their ciggies – something that's allowed.

Demonstrating more sense than most, Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw "called on NHS chiefs and Government ministers to show smokers more consideration".

He said : "I hope the Scottish Government reconsiders their hard-line approach in favour of one more pragmatic."

In a similar vein I was struck by a post on the Forest Facebook page this week:

Just been to visit my Dad. He hasn't been able to get out to smoke his pipe for 3 days because his tablets are making him feel dizzy and it's quite a walk to the one place outside where he's allowed to smoke at the residential home.

Shortage of nicotine makes him wonderfully grumpy and he spent about half an hour ranting and raving about the idiots who tell us that smoking is bad for us. When Dad's nicotine levels are back to where they should be he is indeed a sweet old gentleman, LOL. He'll be 97 in June.

Last but definitely not least, I took a call on Wednesday from the daughter of a 68-year-old woman. Her mother is a smoker, suffers from dementia, and is currently in a psychiatric hospital waiting to be moved to a care home where there's a smoking room. She's been told it could take eight or nine months for a place to become available.

The mother was admitted in January and things were OK until the new rules prohibited her from smoking in the hospital grounds. Before that members of staff were allowed to take her outside so she could light up. Now they've been told they can't and it's not safe for her go out unaccompanied.

According to her daughter her mother is going downhill rapidly. Consultants and nurses are said to be sympathetic but say their hands are tied by the regulations.

When we spoke the daughter was distressed by her mother's predicament and occasionally tearful. I promised her Forest's support and we'll do what we can, but I'm pessimistic. The 'caring' profession is nothing of the sort. All they care about is their wretched no smoking policy which must be obeyed at all cost. Commonsense and decency are sacrificed on the altar of public health. What's happening is inhumane yet no-one is willing to do anything about it.

Newspapers report that no smoking rules are being ignored by many patients. I welcome that but what about those who are immobile or have mental health problems? They're being discriminated against because they don't have a choice. Being dependent on others they have no alternative other than to comply with a nasty, vindictive regulation that puts ideology before humanity.

Saturday
Apr112015

Tobacco controllers will debate, but only on their terms

Simon Chapman and some of his followers have responded to yesterday's post with a series of tweets.

Explaining his decision to decline an invitation to take part in an Oxford Union debate about the tobacco industry (‘This House believes that the tobacco industry is morally reprehensible’), Chapman wrote:

I don't assist anti-vaxers, climate change denialists & other miscreants to get platforms either.

That was rather different to his initial response to the Oxford Union:

Thanks, xxxx. I've no financial support to attend sorry, and some clashes too. Very nice of you to think of me.

No hifalutin argument there. Just a simple reference to cost and other commitments.

Ignoring this Fran Barlow, a "green and left-wing school-teacher", tweeted her support for Chapman:

Denying credibility to faux debates can be seen as supportive of healthy discourse.

Others responded:

Some debates are useful. Others should not be lent credibility.

You can't debate science with passionate, irrational "beliefs". Life's too short.

From that we can deduce that tobacco controllers will debate but only on their terms - and their idea of "healthy discourse" is more akin to a one party state.

Meanwhile, if anyone is driven by irrational "beliefs" it's the more extreme anti-smokers who believe the merest whiff of tobacco smoke can endanger someone's health, while the sight of a complete stranger smoking in public will condemn a child to a lifetime addiction and an early grave.

Neither argument is supported by evidence yet I rarely if ever hear them disputed by public health campaigners who will happily support any anti-smoking sentiment if it edges us closer to a 'smoke-free' (sic) world.

As for Chapman, I'd have enjoyed crossing swords with this egotistical popinjay but it's his choice. His absence, and the arguments put forward by his disciples on Twitter, say more about tobacco control than I ever could.

Friday
Apr102015

Simon Chapman and the Oxford Union

A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in an Oxford Union debate.

The motion is ‘This House believes that the tobacco industry is morally reprehensible’.

The debate "seeks to challenge the view that tobacco companies – who ostensibly operate in a legitimate, legal and responsible industry – should be treated as pariahs."

I agreed to speak and was told I'd be joined by a senior executive from a major tobacco company. The identity of our opponents wasn't mentioned and I didn't ask. I'd find out soon enough.

Yesterday Australia's leading anti-tobacco campaigner Simon Chapman took to Twitter to reveal that he and fellow Aussie activist Mike Daube had been invited to propose the motion.

Typically Chapman informed his followers of this by adopting his default position - high-handed moral superiority allied to an unnecessary suggestion of impropriety and an irrelevant reference to FCTC guidelines.

His main complaint (which I partly understand) is he wasn't told the event is supported by Imperial Tobacco. But he's not alone. I hadn't been told either. Yesterday was the first I'd heard of it.

There's a simple reason for this. I'm told that on March 25, when the invitations were issued, the company's involvement hadn't been confirmed.

I imagine too that it didn't occur to the undergraduates organising the event that it might be an issue. Naive, perhaps, but hardly a hanging offence.

Instead of mentioning his concerns privately and politely, Chapman has gone public with a view to embarrassing our young hosts.

I'm not sure where this leaves the debate (which is scheduled for next month) but as far as I'm concerned this is a free speech issue so I hope it goes ahead.

If it does it will be my second appearance at the Oxford Union. The first was in 2005 when I joined forces with Antony Worrall Thompson to oppose the motion 'This House would ban smoking in all public places'.

Proposing the motion was Professor Sir Charles George, president of the British Medical Association, and Tony Blair's old friend, Lord Faulkner of Worcester.

The outcome was a win for the ayes (118 to 82) but the result was unrepresentative of Oxford students because a few months earlier the Union had been forced to reverse a self-imposed smoking ban after large numbers of students deserted the Union bar in favour of the local pubs where they were still allowed to smoke!

Apart from the result what I remember most about the event were the pre-debate dinner and photo call. The walls of the Union are covered with framed pictures of previous speakers, including presidents and prime ministers.

There's an enormous sense of history so it's nerve-wracking but a huge privilege to be asked to speak.

Free speech on campus has taken a bit of a battering recently (see Brendan O'Neil's excellent article, Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the ‘right to be comfortable’) so let's hope Chapman's reaction to a well-meant invitation doesn't discourage others from taking part.

A healthy society requires free speech and open debate. How sad that Simon Chapman, pontificating about public health 10,500 miles away, can't see that.

Wednesday
Apr082015

You wanna fight? Let's take this outside

Ashford Borough Council is the latest local authority to impose a 'voluntary' smoking ban on children's play areas.

The pilot project is being introduced at the request of Kent County Council Public Health.

The aim of the project is to provide a smoke-free environment for children and their families to enjoy, help protect children from the effects of second hand smoke, and reduce the number of children who start smoking after being influenced by those who do.

The non-smoking policy is voluntary so the responsibility is on local people to make the scheme a success. If the pilot project proves successful, the initiative could be rolled out in numerous play areas across Kent.

Cultural and Youth Projects Leader, SallyAnne Logan, said: "Sadly, smoking has become a fairly common practice in children’s play areas. Bringing in a smoke-free policy across play areas will help protect children from the effects of second hand smoke and provide a healthy haven for children to play and learn."

Personally I'd be very surprised if smoking in play areas "has become a fairly common practice". Where's the evidence? Has any research been carried out to justify this statement?

As for the "effects of second hand smoke", if there's evidence that smoking in the open air is a health risk to any bystander (including children) I'd love to see it.

Anyway, I did a short interview for BBC South East Today, to be broadcast this evening as part of a short report, and I'm on BBC Radio Kent in approximately 30 minutes.

Earlier today I was also asked this to comment on reports that lots of people are ignoring the ban on smoking in hospital grounds that was introduced in Scotland on April 1.

I didn't say it but I am silently rejoicing. Conversely I'm also angry at the sheer pettiness of a policy that has resulted in some hospitals fencing off their smoking shelters to stop people using them.

Incredibly, some NHS Trusts are employing people to monitor hospital grounds to catch people lighting up.

Have they nothing better to do than persecute ordinary people for smoking a legal product in the open air? Now that's what I call sick.

Update: Hospitals bring in more staff to tackle smokers (Evening News)

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