Tuesday
Oct102017

Why I'm tempted to attend the 2017 E-Cigarette Summit

Dick Puddlecote has posted a damning indictment of the E-Cigarette Summit on his blog.

Echoing many of my own views about this annual event, Dick highlights the lack of consumer involvement and concludes:

Basically, the whole day will be a load of people who mostly don't vape or smoke talking about what to do to people who do. In other words, yet another public health conference, and all the more pointless for it. Still, it'll suit tobacco controllers not to have to field any awkward questions, and further prove that this sphere of policy is now controlled, dictated and owned by 'public health'.

From a promising beginning in 2013 (which I wrote about here), the E-Cigarette Summit has become yet another forum that allows public health campaigners to dictate the terms of the debate.

Two years ago, spotting the direction of travel, I wrote a post (Why I'm not attending today's E-Cigarette Summit) in which I commented:

Last year I considered going again but when I looked at the list of speakers it was pretty much the same as the year before and heaven knows there are only so many times I can listen to Deborah Arnott without jumping off a bridge.

This year I received several emails inviting me to attend at a cost of £350 (plus VAT) and I was tempted until I saw that not only were the usual anti-smoking suspects speaking (again), but they were now joined by the likes of Andrea Crossfield (Tobacco Free Futures) and Prof John Britton (UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies).

Frankly (and I don't care how good the biscuits are), the thought of spending a whole day being lectured by one anti-smoking activist after another is too much.

I added:

I also sense a slightly patronising attitude towards the vapers who are speaking. With one exception they have been put in sessions where they are sharing the platform with four or five other panellists so their contributions will be limited to say the least.

In contrast John Britton has been parachuted in and given his own session. Ditto Andrea Crossfield who will be talking about 'E-Cigarettes: Practitioners Views, Beliefs, Experiences and Concerns'.

Now I've known Andrea for several years (and I like her) but to the best of my knowledge she's not a 'practitioner'. She's a full-time, state-funded anti-tobacco campaigner. Surely that session could have been given by Lorien Jollye or Sarah Jakes of the New Nicotine Alliance?

Tobacco Free Futures no longer exists so we will be spared Andrea's no doubt insightful observations at this year's Summit. Against that is the fact that compared to 2015, when there were two consumer representatives, there is now just one on the list of 20 speakers.

Public health activists will probably argue that the event is organised by an independent third party and they have no control over who is invited to speak, but the reality is that – commercially – the E-Cigarette Summit needs the support of the public sector to fill all those seats at the Royal Society and the organisers can't risk alienating their core audience by exposing them to anything that might put them out of their comfort zone.

The result is that important stakeholders such as the tobacco companies are noticeably absent from programme and the sole consumers' representative is relegated to a bit part at the fag end of a long day.

I'm tempted to attend the 2017 E-Cigarette Summit if only to compare it with the first event in 2013 where several delegates were openly vaping and with the exception of a rather grumpy Deborah Arnott it was a surprisingly friendly and positive environment.

I'll only go though if I get a preferential rate as the representative of a non-profit smokers' rights group.

Watch this space.

Monday
Oct092017

The 'alt tobacco' lobby and the war on choice

This was the Philip Morris stand at the Tory conference in Manchester last week.

The way it was described to me I was expecting a small house but instead it was just a large and fairly traditional box stand with the words 'Smoke' and 'Free' emblazoned on the side.

Anxious to keep an open mind I picked up a leaflet that began by asking 'How long will the world's leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business?'.

Although I couldn't find an exact answer to this question it was helpful in explaining 'Why Philip Morris International is giving up smoking'.

Smoking is harmful and cigarette smoking causes serious disease and is addictive ... The best option is always not to start smoking or for smokers to quit.

The leaflet quoted Peter Nixon, MD of Philip Morris UK and Ireland ("We strongly support the Government's ambition to create a smoke-free generation.") before concluding:

Philip Morris International has set a bold new course to ensure that smoke-free products replace cigarettes ...

Now, we want to work with politicians, local authorities and businesses to help achieve a smoke-free future.

OK, I've quoted those comments in isolation (I've no argument with the overall case for alternative nicotine products) but you get the picture.

This is not a company that intends to defend the use of combustible products or the interests of those who enjoy smoking and don't want to quit.

Indeed, PMI is so determined to lead the charge towards a Utopian 'smoke-free' future the company is prepared, it seems, to risk alienating the very consumers it hopes to convert to its own heated tobacco and 'e-vapour' devices by openly advocating an anti-smoking agenda.

Good luck with that.

My own view is that it's perfectly possible to promote a new generation of reduced risk products (as other companies are doing) without stamping on traditional tobacco products or punishing existing smokers by supporting further increases in excise duty as PMI has done.

Moreover, while it is crazy to demand that PMI stops selling cigarettes with immediate effect, I do think that as long as the company continues to manufacture and sell combustible cigarettes it has a duty to defend the rights and interests of adults who choose to smoke its products.

Alternative nicotine products were also the focus of several fringe events in Manchester. The Institute of Economic Affairs hosted a discussion entitled 'Vaping: Could Brexit be good for our health?' The Adam Smith Institute chipped in with 'Innovation vs. The Nanny State: How markets are solving the problems government can't'. Last but not least, British American Tobacco hosted the Vype Reception, named after the "UK's leading e-cigarette brand".

Chaired by unapologetic smoker Mark Littlewood, speakers at the IEA Think Tent event were Chris Snowdon (IEA), Bob Blackman MP (chairman, APPG on Smoking and Health), Clive Bates (former director of ASH), and James Hargrave, head of public affairs for the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA).

Despite the distractions of heavy drilling outside the marquee and occasional gusts of wind buffeting the roof, I heard enough from Blackman to conclude that the man is a buffoon. His most ridiculous comment was the statement that smoking is "guaranteed" to kill you. No ifs, no buts. "Guaranteed." Other comments were followed by a self-satisfied smirk.

Bates is also becoming a bit smug (more so than he was) but you can't blame him. After all, when people hang on your every word and treat you like a minor deity it's inevitable, I suppose. (Jealous, moi?)

I didn't go to the ASI event because I had other things to do but I was keen to attend the Vype Reception, not least to see how it had evolved from the previous year.

Last year's event took place in a small window-less room in a soulless conference centre. It felt corporate yet clandestine, an odd mix. This year it was located in a large suite in the main hotel – the same room the Tobacco Manufacturers Association used for a reception in 2010. (The significance didn't escape me.) There were many more guests than last year and it felt like a traditional conference event. Like vaping, the Vype Reception had grown up and come of age. I can only see it getting bigger.

Both the IEA event and the Vype Reception were featured in a PR Week report headlined 'Alt tobacco' lobby lights up Tory conference. I'd never heard the term before but it seems that PMI, UKVIA and the IEA are all categorised as 'alt tobacco'. To this group I would add the ASI, the New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) and even the Freedom Association whose pro-vaping campaign Freedom to Vape has been quietly active for more than a year now.

It shows how times are a-changing because where there were just two categories of lobby group in this field – tobacco and anti-tobacco – now there are three (at least). To complicate matters further there's a fine line between 'tobacco' and 'alt tobacco' and 'alt tobacco' and 'anti-tobacco', not to mention the distinction between anti-tobacco and anti-smoking. 

No-one, I'm sure, would accuse PMI or the NNA of being anti-tobacco. PMI, after all, advocates the use of heated tobacco while the NNA is fighting a court battle to get another tobacco product – snus – legalised. But anti-smoking? That's a different matter.

The jury is out on the NNA (whose reluctance to condemn almost any anti-smoking measure is nevertheless pretty damning) but the evidence against PMI seems unequivocal. If you announce plans to donate $1 billion to an institution called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and work with "politicians, local authorities and businesses to help achieve a smoke-free future", it's hard to conclude that you are anything other than anti-smoking.

At least PMI is transparent about its long-term goal. The 'alt tobacco' campaigners I really don't care for are those who claim to believe in choice but – dig a little deeper – and it's clear their advocacy begins and ends with non-combustible products. Cigarettes? Meh.

Some 'alt tobacco' campaigners are so keen to embrace e-cigarettes as a 'solution' to the smoking 'problem' (their words) I sense they will happily abandon smokers to even more prohibitive regulations if it suits their agenda.

Last week for example I spotted a tweet by an 'alt tobacco' advocate that appeared to suggest that while it's wrong to restrict or ban flavoured e-liguids it's perfectly OK to prohibit flavoured (ie menthol) cigarettes. I'm sorry, if you genuinely value consumer choice and personal responsibility neither policy is right and you should say so.

(I've made this point before but I'll make it again. The true test of a genuine liberal is the ability to defend activities he/she neither likes nor indulges in. Smoking is a litmus test for such people and many are failing the test.)

I've noticed too that 'alt tobacco' lobbyists are increasingly using the language and guesstimates of anti-smoking campaigners to promote their cause. This includes the term 'smoke free' and the number of deaths allegedly caused by smoking and 'passive' smoking and the number of lives 'saved' if every smoker switched to vaping.

I can't think of a government body that is more despised by pro-vaping advocates than the World Health Organisation. Nevertheless, if WHO says a billion lives will be lost to smoking this century, it must be true!

Likewise the same campaigners who regularly criticise or lampoon Public Health England for its pronouncements on alcohol and food currently treat anything PHE says about smoking and vaping as if it's the word of God. To be clear, I don't dispute PHE's claim that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than combustible cigarettes, I just find it funny that many 'alt tobacco' lobbyists promote PHE as the font of all wisdom on smoking and vaping and complete muppets on everything else.

So where does the rise of the 'alt tobacco' lobby leave Forest? Our role, I believe, is to embrace the new without abandoning the old, hence our own fringe event - Eat, Drink, Smoke, Vape - that gave equal billing to smoking and vaping.

I must stress however that while Forest will evolve - happily advocating new nicotine products in the name of choice - we will never abandon the interests of adults who choose to smoke. If that makes us more 'tobacco' than 'alt tobacco', so be it. It's just a label, after all.

The real battle is not between the tobacco, 'alt tobacco' or anti-tobacco lobbies. It's about choice. Quite simply, are you for, or against? 

Thursday
Oct052017

Morning after the night before

Events have rather overtaken the Forest/TMA drinks party in Manchester on Tuesday night.

I was driving out of the city yesterday morning when Theresa May began her speech. Even before the interruption by a so-called comedian and the repeated coughing fits, it was a car crash.

'The British Dream'? WTF is that? We're British. We don't dream, we muddle by.

The subsequent annoucement of a series of Ed Miliband style policies on housing and energy prices only made things worse. Is this the best the Conservatives can do?

But you'd have to have a heart of granite not to feel for someone dying on their feet. Even while I was driving I was holding my head in my hands muttering, "Oh my God, oh my God."

It was so painful I wanted to turn the radio off but I couldn't.

Outside the Westminster bubble you may be wondering what all the fuss is about but the clips shown on the news last night only hint at the tortuous nature of May's unfortunate performance.

I've previously defended not her policies but her apparently genuine sense of public duty and I do so again, but as others have commented you need luck to be a successful general and May is currently having no luck.

The letters dropping off the staging behind her back was another thrust of the political dagger.

In the light of all that our 'drinks party' (how quaint that sounds) seems light years away. In fact it was quite a success with Conservative MP Nigel Evans giving a rip-roaring speech that could not have been more appropriate to the drink-fuelled nature of the occasion.

"This is the best event at conference," declared Nigel boldly, "because people are allowed to do as they want."

I wouldn't go as far as that but guests were certainly allowed to eat, drink, smoke and vape (at the same time!) so that was probably unique.

Officially we were limited to 120 guests but there were many more than that. The heated, covered terrace was packed and the lounge was pretty full too.

The first guests arrived at 7.45 (the event was billed to start at 8.30), and the last left at 12.15.

Around 10.00 we ran out of booze (we'd pre-ordered cockails, beer and prosecco) and had to order more. 

Sadly the only thing most people will remember about the 2017 Tory conference is the PM's speech the following morning.

C'est la vie.

Below: Nigel Evans MP addresses guests at the Forest/TMA reception. Alongside him are fellow MPs Craig Mackinlay and Gareth Johnson.

Tuesday
Oct032017

Fringe benefits


If you're in Manchester today do join us for Forest's annual fringe event at the Conservative party conference.

It's called Eat, Drink, Smoke, Vape and we're co-hosting it with the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association.

Venue is the rooftop lounge and terrace at Great John Street Hotel (above). We hired it a two years ago and, weather permitting, it's almost perfect for this type of event.

The hotel is outside the secure zone so you don't need a conference pass but you must register in advance because it has a limited capacity of 120.

If you've already registered, I'll see you later.

Monday
Oct022017

Was it something I wrote?

The latest edition of Boisdale Life is available now.

Published by Boisdale Restaurants, the magazine is said to have a readership of 400,000 "free thinking individuals".

The new issue was due to include an article I was asked to write about the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban.

Curiously it didn't run ("We had too much copy") but I wonder if this passage had anything to do with it:

Today younger generations are conditioned to believe that before the ban every pub and bar was a fug of toxic smoke that suffocated customers and staff without mercy. As a lifelong non-smoker and a regular pub goer for many years I can honestly remember only one occasion when I entered a pub and it was so smoky my eyes watered. Come the new millennium many bars had installed extremely effective air filtration systems so the smoky environments of old were increasingly rare.

Almost as nauseating is the smug claim that “I no longer stink or have to wash my clothes when I return from the pub.” Did no-one wash their clothes before the smoking ban? Did no-one ever sweat or get their clothes dirty in other ways? Was it the norm, before the smoking ban, to wear the same shirt or blouse day after day? I never recall this being a problem until a handful of anti-smoking zealots began to make an issue of it.

Even contributors to Boisdale Life have bought into this myth. At a lunch to mark the magazine’s fifth birthday earlier this year I was disappointed to find little support for amending the legislation. Interestingly that puts them at odds with the general public because even in recent years polls have consistently found a small majority in favour of allowing well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs.

Frankly I sensed something that dare not speak its name – snobbery. At Boisdale it’s not enough to have a terrace where people can smoke. It has to be called a ‘Cigar Terrace’. I imagine it’s designed to appeal to a certain demographic that considers cigarettes to be a bit vulgar or second rate. The irony is that the impact of the smoking ban has arguably been worse for cigar smokers. If you want to smoke a cigarette you nip outside for five or ten minutes. It’s not ideal, especially in bad weather, but millions have adapted, albeit grudgingly, to the enforced change. A cigar, like a fine wine, needs to be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, hence the attraction of Boisdale’s warm and comfortable smoking areas.

Annoyingly a similar thing happened last year when my colleague Rob Lyons, former deputy editor of Spiked, also submitted a piece at the magazine's request. That didn't run either.

Today the editor attempted to placate me by saying, "The good news is we want to make a bigger feature of the anniversary in the next magazine."

The next magazine? At the rate Boisdale Life is published (the previous issue appeared in May, the one before than in December), the next edition won't be published before the new year. Why would anyone feature the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban six months after the event?

To be honest, I don't care about the article not appearing. What I care about is being messed around. Can you tell?

Sunday
Oct012017

Stoptober: the mystery of the missing evaluation

"Stoptober is back ... and it's bigger than ever."

The question is, why?

On November 3, shortly after the 2016 campaign finished, I wrote:

Last year, without prompting or prevarication, Public Health England reported that over 215,000 smokers had signed up to Stoptober 2015. The announcement was made on October 30, 2015, and was posted on the UK government website.

What it failed to mention was that the number was 15 per cent fewer than 2014 or that PHE, a quango funded by taxpayers' money, paid four comedians including Al Murray and Bill Bailey a total of £195,000 to promote the campaign.

The latter wasn't revealed until February 2016 when the Mail on Sunday blew the whistle. Meanwhile we await comparable figures for Stoptober 2016.

When I wrote that post I was curious to know how many smokers had signed up to Stoptober 2016.

In the absence of any reports I wrote to PHE asking for confirmation. My email was treated as a freedom of information request and on November 18, 2016, I received this response:

The strategy for Stoptober 2016 was to focus on overall participation rather than sign ups to PHE tools. As such, the evaluation will focus on quits at a population level.

In other words – and possibly to disguise a further fall in the number of smokers signing up – PHE had changed the goalposts. Nevertheless:

It is expected that all strands of the evaluation will be finalised early February.

Well, February came and went and still there was no sign of a report. Eventually, on August 25, four weeks before the launch of Stoptober 2017, I sent a further FOI request for a "full evaluation of the outcome of Stoptober 2016".

On September 22, the day after Stoptober 2017 was launched, PHE replied:

We are releasing an evaluation document of Stoptober 2016 during Stoptober 2017; this will be available on the PHE website ... The original publication date was delayed.

Delayed? You're telling me! Delayed by eight months. And why release an evaluation document of Stoptober 2016 during Stoptober 2017? Is this an attempt to hide bad news?

Equally interesting is the fact that my FOI request also uncovered the information that "the final media spend for Stoptober 2016 was £390,000" while "the current projected media spend for Stoptober 2017 is £1.08 million".

Think about that for a minute. Public Health England committed over one million pounds of your money to Stoptober 2017 (an increase of 150 per cent) when it had yet to publish an evaluation of the outcome of Stoptober 2016.

It's like an army going into battle without evaluating the outcome of the previous conflict. Why would PHE do that? Is it simple incompetence or something else?

Meanwhile, why the difference between the projected and actual media costs for Stoptober 2016? According to PHE in November 2016, "The total media spend for Stoptober 2016 is approximately £545,000." Now, says PHE nine months later, "The final media spend for Stoptober 2016 was £390,000."

I'm glad that the actual figure is less than the projected figure but it would be interesting to know why there is such a disparity.

According to a video released today, "Thousands of people are getting ready to quit smoking this Stoptober." In the same video Coronation Street actress Kym Marsh urges smokers to "Join over one million people who have taken part in Stoptober."

Truth is, a significant sum of public money is being spent on a campaign that doesn't appear to know its arse from its elbow. Nor is there evidence that Stoptober does what it's intended to do – get smokers to quit.

Taking part in or "getting reading to quit" are quite different from giving up smoking for good. Lazily however media and politicians swallow all the propaganda (the videos, the tweets, the celebrity endorsements) while more and more money is flushed down the toilet in the name of 'smoking cessation'.

Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to get the vaping community to promote Stoptober 2017:

The annual Stoptober campaign in England is embracing e-cigarettes for the first time - in a sign vaping is being seen as the key to getting people to quit.

See Quit smoking campaign Stoptober backs e-cigs for the first time (BBC News).

Sadly the chances of reading an evaluation of Stoptober 2017 (including the number of smokers who swap combustibles for e-cigarettes) before Stoptober 2018 must be pretty small. After all, that's not how government or the public sector work.

Almost every campaign or policy is based on a wing, a prayer – and your dosh.

See also: Stoptober is proof that comedy isn't the new rock 'n' roll (October 2015), Stoptober and the law of diminishing returns (September 2016), Questions for Public Health England concerning Stoptober 2016 (November 2016).

Friday
Sep292017

Alcohol may have been consumed

This week's Burning Issues dinner in Dublin ranks as one of the most enjoyable Forest events ever.

It was a private event for 14 people but the chemistry was great, there was lots of laughter and hardly a lull in the conversation all evening.

The format of these occasions is pretty simple.

One, book a private dining room in a good restaurant with easy access to a smoking terrace (heated and covered).

Two, invite guests for pre-dinner drinks on the terrace. Let the booze flow then sit down for dinner.

Three, introduce the guest speaker to kick start a discussion on a given topic.

Four, bring other guests into the conversation in order to generate a lively roundtable discussion.

Five, ensure there is plenty of delicious wine on the table throughout the meal.

Six, when dinner is over withdraw to the terrace for further drinks and debate.

Seven, express genuine surprise when a member of staff tells you it's gone midnight and asks you (politely) to pay the bill and leave because she and her colleagues would like to go home.

Guests on Wednesday included two journalists (three if you count the former ambassador who is now writing a column for a national newspaper), a senior public affairs consultant, a libertarian dentist, several free marketeers, Forest's John Mallon, plus students from Trinity College and University College Dublin.

Speaker was Chris Snowdon (above) who talked about 'The Nanny State We're In'. Unfortunately there's no official record of what he said because, according to one guest:

"I think we must have all had a fair bit of wine because most of the recordings I have from the dinner are very choppy and full of people changing the subject."

That's how I remember it too but, somehow, it worked.

Below: The morning after the night before ...

Tuesday
Sep262017

State of a nation

Ryanair permitting I shall arrive in Dublin shortly before midday.

Tonight Forest is supporting a Dublin Salon event on plain packaging of tobacco and minimum pricing of alcohol.

It was intended to be a debate between the IEA's Chris Snowdon and a representative of one of a number of organisations including ASH Ireland, Alcohol Action Ireland and the TobaccoFree Research Institute Ireland whose director general, Luke Clancy, is a former chairman of ASH Ireland.

To the best of my knowledge not one of these organisations replied to organiser Justin Smyth's invitation to speak which says it all, really.

Justin was minded to cancel the event but I pointed out that if we did that we would be playing into their hands because that's exactly what they want.

They want to close down debate while enjoying exclusive access to government, not to mention preferential treatment in the media.

When it comes to engagement between opposing parties on tobacco and alcohol-related issues the UK is hardly a beacon of light but Ireland - like Brussels - takes the biscuit.

Tomorrow night, for example, Forest is hosting the second in a series of private dinners designed to bring together a variety of people with widely disparate views.

So far, when it comes to attracting opposing views, we've hit the same wall as Dublin Salon. No-one from the 'public health' community is prepared to engage with us even though the dinners are conducted under Chatham House rules and apart from the speaker the names of the dozen or so guests remain strictly confidential.

The absurdity reached a new peak when someone we invited to dinner on Wednesday took the best part of a week to hum and haw before apologetically declining our invitation.

I won't name him because he seems a decent bloke and it would be a breach of trust.

It's worth mentioning however because I got the impression he wanted to join us but because he works for a political party he had to ask his superiors for their approval.

Not one person, mind, but several - hence the delay in getting a decision.

Permission, needless to say, was denied and he won't be joining us - not even in a private capacity.

As for the media, I've lost count of the number of journalists in Ireland who decline to engage with us. In fact I now consider it a result just to get a reply, even if it's a firm or brusque 'no'.

Ironically, as I mentioned in a previous post, a leading vaping advocate also ignored our invitation to dinner (shortly before unfollowing us on Twitter) so it's not just political parties and professional public health activists who are refusing to engage.

This, then, is the state of political and public health discourse in Ireland today.

Thankfully it's not all doom and gloom. Fourteen people will be attending our dinner in Dublin tomorrow and while I'm there I'll also be pressing ahead with plans for a rather more ambitious event later in the year.

Watch this space.

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