Sunday
Sep242017

Sunday Morning Live? Hardly worth getting up for

I was on Sunday Morning Live (BBC1) this morning.

Got up at 5.00, drove myself to London (they offered to send a car but I prefer my own company, especially at that time of the morning) and arrived ridiculously early so I had to find a coffee shop to kill the best part of an hour.

Even 8.45, which is when guests were asked to arrive, was unnecessarily early, as the producer himself admitted when he came to the green room to welcome us to the programme which is broadcast live from 10.00am.

"I don't know why we ask people to come so early," he said.

I do. It's to stop the production team having kittens if someone arrives with minutes to spare or not at all and they have to alter the schedule at the very last moment.

From the guests' point of view it's a pain because there is a lot of sitting around, especially if you're on the last of three panels, as I was. More of that in a minute.

Other guests on today's programme included journalists Peter Hitchens and Yasmin Ali Brown, and Nigel Evans MP who were all taking part in a discussion about the social media abuse of MPs.

That was the second topic of the day. The first was about the legalisation of drugs and Hitchens was on that panel as well. In fact, he dominated it so much he got heckled (off air) by several guests in the green room.

I didn't speak to Hitchens or Ali Brown but I did speak to Nigel Evans. Nigel has attended several Forest events (and is speaking at our Conservative conference fringe event in Manchester on October 3) so I thought he might recognise me.

He didn't. Nevertheless we had an amiable chat and he made a couple of points I had every intention of using when, finally, I got on air to debate the programme's third and final topic - 'Should medical treatment be delayed for patients with unhealthy lifestyles?'

The full panel was Chris Snowdon's favourite cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, mental health campaigner Natasha Devon and broadcaster Rosy Millard.

By now the programme was running late so there was no time for any debate worthy of the name. Instead the presenter went to Millard, Devon, Malhotra and me (in that order) with almost no interaction between panellists.

I did take issue with something Millard had said but there was little time to say a whole lot more before there was a break to read out some viewers' comments following which the presenter returned to Malhotra. Finally, with seconds remaining, Natasha Devon was given the last word.

It all felt extremely rushed. The official explanation: "We were squeezed for time."

My reaction? Hardly worth getting up for.

Update: You can watch the programme on BBC iPlayer here. The topic is introduced at 45:20 and the discussion starts at 45:50.

The item is longer (about eight minutes) than it felt, although I still wouldn't classify it as a 'debate' or 'conversation', which is what we were promised.

Saturday
Sep232017

Snowdon: nanny state editor at large in Dublin

Pleased to report that Chris Snowdon, head of the IEA's Lifestyle Economics Unit and editor of the Nanny State Index, is speaking at a Forest dinner in Dublin next week (September 27).

Theme of the evening is 'The Nanny State We're In' and few people are more qualified to discuss the issue than the editor of the definitive guide.

Launched last year, the Nanny State Index is a league table of the worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape.

The UK currently ranks second, behind Finland, with Ireland third, so there will be lots to talk about.

On Tuesday, at another event in Dublin (September 26), Chris will address two related issues that are currently topical in Ireland - plain packaging of tobacco and minimum pricing of alcohol.

Plain packs are being introduced from the end of next week and minimum pricing is expected to be included in a new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

The event is hosted by Dublin Salon with the support of Forest. It's a public debate and admission is free so if you're resident in Dublin or visiting the city do join us. Click here to register.

Wednesday's dinner is a private event that follows the success of a similar dinner in June. Speaker on that occasion was Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, who is also addressing a Forest EU event in Brussels in November.

PS. We invited one of Ireland's most prominent vaping advocates to join us for 'The Nanny State We're In'. Not only did she deign to reply, a day or two later she unfollowed Forest on Twitter.

Coincidence?

Friday
Sep222017

Risk and rhetoric - more from GTNF

Final word on last week's Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York (see my previous post, Mandela, moon landings and JFK).

On day one I was on a consumer-orientated panel moderated by Chris Greer, CEO of the US-based Tobacco Merchants Association. The other speakers were Giles Roca, director of the UK-based Tobacco Manufacturers' Association; Alex Clark, CEO of Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association (CASAA); and Audrey Silk, director of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (NYC Clash).

Genuine consumers, smokers especially, are rarely invited to speak at tobacco conferences (at best they are given observer status) so I was delighted Alex and Audrey accepted our invitation. They each made points that needed to be said and their heartfelt contributions made GTNF a richer, less corporate event (for an hour, at least).

Audrey was certainly in no mood for appeasement and if her forthright view of public health campaigners ("lunatics") was at odds with the tone of the conference it was refreshing to hear her say it.

After the event I asked her for her thoughts. She replied:

Having only spent a few hours at the conference - both actively participating and just taking in the atmosphere - I don't know how fair it is of me to form an impression about its proceedings, let alone judge its value.

That disclaimer aside, my limited presence left me with the taste that, while we all shared our thoughts, experiences, and conclusions about the state of our interests, the question "to what purpose?" was left dangling in the air. Was anything to become of it? I couldn't tell.

While the audience for our well-received panel were "friendlies" (with a few antis strewn among them I would guess), I still felt like I might as well have been testifying at a city council hearing. And we all know how those go. You speak - because the democratic process dictates that they let you - and then ... crickets.

In general though it was a very well put together affair and I was received very warmly. And regardless of what practical impact, if any, will arise from the conference, the greatest benefit was the opportunity to meet, work, and socialize with men like Simon Clark and Chris Snowden and the rest of that particular entourage (women included) who I did not previously know much or anything at all about.

A great group. I had a really good time sitting with them for dinner and confirming that it's our side of the debate who know how to have the most fun. Thanks for the invite, Simon!

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my contribution to the discussion, Risk and Regulation: Impact of Excessive Legislation on Consumer Behaviour. I spoke directly after Audrey and this is what I said:

------

We've heard about consumer attitudes and how excessive legislation can be counter-productive. I’d like to raise two questions that rarely get asked:

One: “Despite the well known health risks and increasingly restrictive regulations, why do so many adults continue to smoke?”

Two: “Despite the significantly reduced risk of using e-cigarettes, why don't more smokers switch to e-cigarettes or other harm reduction products?”

But first, I’d like to introduce you to Jim. That’s not his real name. But he is a real person.

This picture (above) was taken at an annual Forest event called Smoke On The Water. Each year we hire a Mississippi-style paddle steamer and cruise down the Thames under Tower Bridge and past many of London’s iconic buildings including the Houses of Parliament. Guests include politicians, parliamentary researchers, political activists but, most important, ordinary consumers – smokers and vapers.

I love this photo because it illustrates the type of person Forest represents – a gloriously unashamed smoker who enjoys smoking and doesn’t wish to quit or conceal his habit.

Smokers, especially cigarette smokers, are invariably portrayed as victims of a terrible addiction. Does this man look like a victim to you? Of course not. Nor is he alone. There are many, many smokers just like Jim.

Yet when I tell non-smokers – including numerous TV and radio presenters – that millions of people enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit, they look at me as if I’m mad or making it up.

And this leads me to some research that I’m very proud to have played a small part in.

Last year Forest was approached by Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow. In his words, "As a result of the overwhelming influence of the tobacco control/public health perspective, the views of smokers have been largely, if not entirely, ignored in medical, scientific, and media discourse on smoking."

Together we compiled a 40-question survey and invited smokers on the Forest database to complete it. The results – which were published in this report, The Pleasure of Smoking: the views of confirmed smokers – were very interesting.

I should add that we invited Neil himself to join us at GTNF but he had a conflicting event in Vancouver, so I’m going to address some of the findings on his behalf.

The online survey ran for three weeks in November 2016. It was advertised primarily to smokers in contact with Forest. 650 smokers completed the survey. It is not and has not been presented as a representative sample of ALL smokers. Instead it’s a sample of what we have termed confirmed smokers – those for whom smoking is seen as a positive part of their lives.

We asked them about their smoking history, their reasons for starting and continuing smoking, what they liked most and least about smoking, their thoughts on what might most influence their smoking in the future and their views and experience of alternative nicotine delivery products (mainly e-cigarettes).

So what did they say? I won’t go through the whole report. I’ll simply highlight a few of the findings:

31% said smoking helped them deal with stress; 35% said smoking was part of their identity; 56% accepted they were addicted to smoking but, interestingly, that didn’t seem to concern them; 77% envisaged smoking well into the future.

Significantly, 95% identified enjoyment or pleasure as their principal reason for smoking. They knew the risks of smoking but they balanced the pleasure it gave them against the risk to their health.

On the subject of e-cigarettes, an over-whelming majority of respondents had used e-cigarettes (and we got feedback on what they liked and disliked about vaping) but very few were tempted to switch permanently.

The authors concluded that:

  • The smoking end-game (the so-called ‘smokefree’ world) is much talked about by governments, and even by the tobacco industry.
  • Those discussions have been fuelled by the growth of alternative or electronic nicotine delivery systems.
  • On the basis of this survey there remains a sizeable minority of smokers who wish to continue smoking, who enjoy the smoking experience, and who see themselvessmoking well into the future.
  • The willingness of smokers to try alternative products is evident even if it is principally driven by restrictions on smoking.
  • Further transition from combustible to exclusive use of non-combustible nicotine products will rely upon industry developing alternatives to smoking that are closer to the smoking experience than is currently the case with regard to e-cigarette technology.

Why is this survey relevant to this discussion today? The answer is very simple. We believe it is impossible to legislate combustible cigarettes – or smoking – out of existence. For the foreseeable future – and almost certainly long after that – a significant number of people will want to smoke, and ‘public health’ and the tobacco industry need to understand that.

Professional vaping advocates, including the tobacco industry, also need to understand that the current generation of smokeless products, including e-cigarettes, are not sufficiently attractive to the vast majority of confirmed smokers – and it’s not for want of experimenting.

The overwhelming majority of confirmed smokers aren’t stupid. They’ve read the reports and they know that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than combustibles.

But they continue to smoke – even after experimenting with smokeless products – because they enjoy it and smokeless products don’t provide the same degree of pleasure.

Confirmed smokers are also resourceful. Many avoid paying punitive tax on tobacco by using the black market; alternatively they will purchase tobacco, quite legitimately, in countries or states where the tax is lower.

Smoking bans don’t stop them smoking either. Most confirmed smokers are extremely adaptable.

Display bans, graphic health warnings, plain packaging – there is no evidence that any of these measures have reduced smoking rates in the countries where they have been introduced.

The point is – excessive regulations do not stop confirmed smokers from smoking. For some consumers, smoking is actually a small act of defiance against anti-smoking legislation.

In short, no matter how far governments legislate, regulations – and punitive levels of taxation – will NEVER stop a substantial number of people from smoking.

Fundamentally, the issue is and always has been about CHOICE. If you want confirmed smokers to switch to a healthier nicotine delivery system, you have to offer not just an alternative to smoking, it has to be a more pleasurable alternative.

Just as important, you cannot coerce smokers to switch to a healthier alternative. For example, when I hear public bodies in the UK call for a ban on smoking outside pubs and bars to encourage smokers to take up vaping, I despair.

One, it’s an attempt to coerce consumers to quit a legal product. Two, it medicinalises vaping by turning e-cigarettes into a smoking cessation tool.

To get confirmed smokers to switch to e-cigarettes and other harm reduction products, it has to be their choice. You cannot impose vaping on smokers through regulation.

Likewise, for e-cigarettes and heated tobacco to replace combustibles, they have to be recognised by all parties as a recreational product that can be enjoyed on their own terms.

Excessive restrictions and regulations on e-cigarettes will undoubtedly do the product irreparable harm. But it will also harm vaping if it is promoted as an attempt to stub out smoking because what consumers want is choice, not a reduction in choice.

Like all the panellists here, I’m sure, I welcome harm reduction and embrace new technology and emerging products.

However, I also believe that if the tobacco industry is to meet the needs and desires of ALL their customers it has to balance the brave new world of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) with the familiar old world of tobacco.

It should never be a question of one or the other. Just as it is wrong to over-regulate e-cigarettes and discourage smokers from switching to a potentially healthier alternative, it is equally wrong to coerce smokers to switch.

If smokers choose to quit or switch it must be for positive reasons. There is no place for social engineering, whether it be the use of smoking bans or punitive taxation.

I hope therefore that most of the tobacco companies will continue to support the fight for choice, defending the interests of adults who choose to smoke as well as those who choose to switch to e-cigarettes and other nicotine products.

(I am aware, by the way, of the announcement that Philip Morris is to set up a foundation to convert smokers into consumers of devices that don’t burn tobacco. It’s to be called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Perhaps we will discuss this later.)

For many people – not all – risk and pleasure go together. However much we try to reduce risk, in doing so we risk taking away much of the pleasure.

Harm reduction will only be achieved by offering the consumer more choice – not less. You don’t win hearts and minds by banning flavoured cigarettes or reducing nicotine levels. Excessive regulations merely breed resentment.

One final thing I will add is this, and it’s something I’ve been saying for a long time. If anyone thinks the current war on tobacco will end with combustible products, I think they are being very naïve.

We’re told that the goal is a smoke-free world. I don’t believe it. I believe the long-term goal of the anti-smoking industry is a nicotine-free world. Getting smokers to switch to non-combustible products is merely a stepping stone towards that objective.

Finally, if you don’t want e-cigarettes and heated tobacco to go the same way as combustibles – denormalised and regulated to the nth degree – I believe the industry has to publicly support the concept of choice, and defend the rights and interests of all consumers – including confirmed smokers.

Oh, and a suggestion to PMI. Instead of calling your new project the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, how about calling it the Foundation for the Advancement of Consumer Choice? 

Friday
Sep222017

Mandela, moon landings and JFK - GTNF 2017


On reflection I'm not sure I have a lot to say about last week's Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York.

The most dramatic development took place before a word had even been spoken.

While delegates were still bleary-eyed from the previous night's 'Welcome Reception' at the Rockefeller Center, the Financial Times (five hours ahead of us) was reporting that Philip Morris International had pledged to give $1 billion to a new organisation called – wait for it – the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

The money will be donated over twelve years - $80 million annually.

Head of the foundation is former WHO official Derek Yach who helped create the global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and is now a leading advocate of e-cigarettes.

To be honest I don't think anyone was seriously surprised. In recent years PMI has perfected both its anti-smoking credentials and the art of public relations so what could be more natural than the announcement, on the eve of the tobacco industry's foremost global convention, of a billion dollar gift to a body that seeks to eradicate combustible tobacco from the face of the Earth?

Yach and PMI's Marc Firestone were both scheduled to address delegates at the conference but the first keynote speaker was Debra Crew, CEO of Reynolds American.

Crew gave an assured speech in which she diplomatically welcomed PMI's initiative without mentioning the new foundation by name. Instead she focussed on the development of safer nicotine delivery systems, using this analogy:

"If we can put a man on the moon, we can deliver tobacco to people with less risk than smoking," Crew said in a speech at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York on Wednesday. She likened Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's new tobacco initiatives to President John F. Kennedy's quest to put a man on the moon. Gottlieb's vision, like Kennedy's, can be a leap for mankind, she said.

It was a good soundbite but if associating one of America's most iconic presidents with a leading public health official seemed a bit over the top, more was to come.

Invoking World War II, another speaker cited the example of the French and Germans who got together after the war to create a trade zone he credited with bringing long-term peace to Europe.

If wartime enemies could put the past aside, he seemed to suggest, so could public health and the tobacco industry.

Turning the hyperbole meter up to ten, another speaker then casually dropped Nelson Mandela into the mix.

The connection between the former South African president and tobacco harm reduction escaped me but it summed up the tone of the first morning even if Mitch Zeller, the uncompromising director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, did his best to bring delegates down to earth with an unmistakable dose of reality.

Significantly consumers were completely absent from the main stage which was dominated by a succession of public health advocates and tobacco industry executives.

One panel managed to discuss the importance of stakeholder engagement without mentioning consumers at all. Listening to the five panellists (four of whom were public health campaigners, the other a professional 'mediator') it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the only stakeholders that matter in this brave new world are public health and the tobacco companies.

No surprise then that the principal speakers over the two days were split evenly between these two groups. Other stakeholders, including investors, were sidelined to smaller plenary sessions.

Consumers were allocated just one plenary session ('Risk and Regulation, the impact of excessive legislation on consumer behaviour') and even that was moderated by a tobacco industry executive.

Despite these reservations GTNF remains by some distance the pre-eminent tobacco and nicotine conference. It has led the way in discussing and promoting harm reduction and it's done more than any other conference to bring together parties that previously viewed one another with enormous suspicion.

In doing so it has exposed the more extreme factions within public health - those who won't share a public platform with the tobacco industry or engage in any meaningful discussion.

There's a danger of course that GTNF will become just another anti-smoking convention but while I moan about the lack of consumer participation and the ongoing drive towards a smoking cessation agenda, it's still the only global conference that gives a platform (however small) to confirmed smokers or their representative bodies (in this instance Forest and NYC Clash).

It's also the only conference I know that makes an effort to accommodate smokers by arranging for venues to have smoking areas and, where possible, smoking rooms.

You may argue that's the very least a tobacco industry event should do but in the current anti-smoking climate it would be easy and even expedient to quietly ignore the needs of consumers.

I know, for example, that the provision of smoking areas in hotels and buildings that are normally 'no smoking' comes at a significant financial cost.

At the Rockefeller Centre, for example, the organisers of GTNF had to pay not only for a designated smoking area on the 65th floor (the same floor as the reception) but also for security guards whose job it was to prevent absent-minded guests from re-entering the building from the outdoor terrace while carrying a lit cigarette.

A bit heavy-handed? Certainly, but without them there wouldn't have been a smoking area at all because the Center wouldn't have allowed it. (Smokers, it seems, can't be trusted to stub out their cigarettes without the presence of men in uniform.)

As for the designated smoking room ... what can I say? A nice touch appreciated by those who were privy to its existence.

Photo above courtesy GTNF

Tuesday
Sep192017

Pick of the week

"My week beats your year," Lou Reed is once alleged to have said.

I couldn't possibly make a similar claim but last week was a lot more fun than I expected.

It began in Greenwich, Connecticut, took in New York (for the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum), and ended in Bath where we celebrated my aunt's 80th birthday.

I'll write about the business end of GTNF in my next post. Thankfully however there's more to life (and work) than keynote speeches and plenary discussions.

But first, a quick recap.

I flew to JFK on Friday (September 8) where I met my old friend Gary (above) who had also flown in from London but on a different flight.

We've known each other since we were at university together in the late Seventies. His father worked for IBM and for three years, after the whole family moved to America, he attended Greenwich High School.

A few weeks ago he received an invitation to attend the Class of 77's 40th reunion dinner. Knowing I was going to be in New York the following week he suggested I join him for the weekend.

We hired a car, braved the heavy New York traffic and arrived in Greenwich just in time for a late afternoon drink overlooking the picturesque ferry dock.

The hotel where we stopped for a drink held special memories for Gary because it was where his family stayed when they first arrived in the States.

According to a current barman (but unknown to its British guests at the time) the hotel had a reputation in the Seventies for hosting cocaine parties. It later changed its name.

The following day we hit the road again and visited the historic home of Jay Gould, an infamous 'robber baron' who was once one of the richest men in the world.

The Gothic Revival country house overlooks the Hudson River and it was suggested by our guide that every time Gould travelled from his mansion to his office in New York the huge desk at which he worked and in which he kept all his documents under lock and key would go with him – by boat.

Perversly Gould refused to use the train because Cornelius Vanderbilt, his great business rival, owned the local railroad.

Today Greenwich still has some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in America. It's a very attractive place to live and work.

We breakfasted at Dunkin Donuts, lunched at a chic French bistro, spent time on the beach and watched baseball and American football in a couple of sports bars.

We even found time to see Wind River, a "gripping snowmobile Western" set in Wyoming, at the local cinema.

The weather was sunny but not too hot. Perfect, in fact.

On Monday I caught the train to Manhattan, a 45 minute journey that took me to Grand Central Station, a ten minute walk from the Intercontinental Hotel, home of GTNF 2017.

The conference began the following evening with a 'welcome reception' on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Center. The view was spectacular.

The Intercontinental lived up to its title as 'North America’s Leading Business Hotel 2016'. I particularly liked the Gin Parlour bar that gave the lobby a lively ambience few other hotels enjoy.

Most impressive was the penthouse suite that had been commandeered for our use after the gala dinner on Wednesday.

This luxurious apartment featured a large fireplace on one wall and an enormous, sports bar style screen on another.

The best feature though was the outdoor terrace where we smoked large cigars with the lights and sounds of the city all around us.

Cost of staying in the penthouse? $25,000 per night.

Outside conference hours we gravitated, inevitably, to an Irish pub – PJ Morans – on East 48th Street, two blocks up from the hotel.

I also discovered that Raffles Bistro on Lexington Avenue did a remarkably fine breakfast (assuming you enjoy steak with your eggs at 6.30 in the morning).

I couldn't stay for the closing GTNF event on Thursday evening because I had to catch a flight back to London. 

Bath, where we spent the weekend, was pretty enjoyable too. But that's another story.

Below: Empire State Building from the top of the Rockefeller Center

Tuesday
Sep122017

From Greenwich to New York City

Spent the weekend in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Never been there before. Thoroughly recommend it.

The area has some of the richest neighbourhoods in America but for ordinary folk like us it also has Joey B's "where making food isn’t just our job, it’s our passion".

Yesterday I travelled to New York (45 minutes by train) for the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) that starts tonight.

Previous locations have included Bangalore (2010), Cape Town (2013) and West Virginia (2014). All three left lasting memories, including at least one near death experience.

Curiously the most surreal location was nearer to home. In Antwerp in 2012 the conference took place on a moving boat and you couldn't get off, however much you wanted to.

On the first day we were held hostage for the best part of 15 hours. I shall never forget it.

Now, following Bologna (2015) and Brussels (2016), we're back in the USA. Venue is the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel, a few blocks from Grand Central Station. 

Tonight's 'Welcome Reception' is at the Rockefeller Center, a short walk from the hotel. If I get a chance I'll update this post with a photo or two.

Above: Greenwich Point Park, Old Greenwich, a short drive from our hotel. Below: steak 'n' eggs breakfast at Raffles Bistro, Lexington Ave, NYC.

Friday
Sep082017

Down on the farm

I'm travelling today so I'll leave you with the latest addition to the family album.

After graduating in July my son Ruari is currently working on a farm in Devon.

It's his third summer on the farm and here he is with a bull calf he delivered a couple of weeks ago.

It looks sweet enough but it's a lot bigger now, I'm told.

The picture, meanwhile, reminds me that a few years ago – when I asked Ruari what he wanted for Christmas – he put, at the top of his list, a pair of green Wellington boots.

Now that's what I call forward planning.

Wednesday
Sep062017

Audrey Silk: voice of the smoker USA

This time next week I shall be in New York.

Having waited twelve years to return to the city, it will be my second visit in four weeks.

The InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel (to give it its full title) is the venue for the 2017 Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) and I'm taking part in one of the sessions: 'Risk and Regulation: The Impact of Excessive Legislation on Consumer Behaviour'.

One of my regular complaints about tobacco and nicotine-related conferences is the fact that consumers – current smokers especially – are frequently marginalised or excluded from the debate.

Instead of being part of the conversation they are lectured or, worse, patronised. Smokers (and even vapers) are victims of an addiction over which they have no control. They need our help!

Today the few consumers who are invited to speak tend to be ex-smoking vapers but it's rare for them to be given a keynote address. Most of those slots are reserved for 'public health' professionals and long-standing anti-tobacco campaigners.

The chances of someone who likes smoking and doesn't want to quit being asked to speak are virtually nil because that's not what the organisers (or delegates) want to hear.

The same goes for researchers who ask pertinent questions such as "Why don't more smokers switch to using e-cigarettes?" and get the awkward response, "Because I enjoy smoking!"

Again, it's not what 'public health' (or even the tobacco industry) wants to hear.

In other words, most tobacco-related conferences are not only blind to the fact that many smokers don't want to quit, they stubbornly ignore the reality that millions of smokers don't find alternative nicotine products very attractive.

Surely this is worth discussing? Apparently not. Consumers, it seems, are only worth engaging with if they have stopped smoking or have bought into the bogus notion that if every smoker switched to vaping a billion lives will be saved and the 'most harmful epidemic (sic) known to man' will be eradicated forever.

Even GTNF, an industry-led conference that began in 2008 as the Global Tobacco Network Forum, has become something of a platform for smoking cessation advocates.

Don't get me wrong. I've no problem with GTNF focusing on harm reduction and emerging products – it's a natural evolution for a tobacco industry event – but as long as millions of adults enjoy smoking, know the risks and don't want to quit, their interests and concerns should be addressed as well.

They should also be represented on panels and other platforms.

To be fair, the voice of the confirmed smoker can still be heard at GTNF (unlike other conferences) but it's increasingly peripheral.

Which leads me to GTNF 2017. After the usual lobbying on my part I was askd to put together a panel to discuss consumer issues and since we were going to be in New York the first person I thought of was Audrey Silk.

If you've never heard of her, here's a quick resume, courtesy of her bio:

Audrey is the founder of the grassroots smokers’ rights group Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH). A 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department, she retired in 2004. In 2005, she ran for New York City mayor at the invitation of the Libertarian Party.

Based in New York City and originally formed in 2000 to protect and advance the interests of the city and state residents who choose to smoke, CLASH ultimately became active nationally.

In addition to numerous appearances on major cable news networks such as CNN and Fox News, Audrey has been profiled in the New York Times and various documentaries.

Aside from participating at public hearings and meeting with lawmakers, CLASH has launched several court battles challenging the legality of certain anti-smoking laws in New York, including the ban on the use of e-cigarettes.

Her latest CLASH-led campaign, 'Smoking is Normal', is designed to reassure adults who choose to smoke, and to impress on society that smokers are not the villains or victims that public health advocates portray them to be.

The New York Times profile is, I think, a reference to a 2011 article about her homegrown tobacco:

Ms. Silk’s backyard is home to raspberry and rose bushes, geraniums, impatiens and 100 tobacco plants in gardening buckets near her wooden deck. Inside her house, around the corner from Flatbush Avenue, in Marine Park, she has to be careful stepping into her basement - one wrong move could ruin her cigarettes. Dozens of tobacco leaves hang there, drying on wires she has strung across the room, where they turn a crisp light brown as they age above a stack of her old Springsteen records.

Audrey calls her homegrown tobacco 'Screw You Bloomberg'. This 2012 video explains why.

According to another profile, published by the online magazine Hope & Fears in 2015:

Until her 30s, Silk was not particularly political. "I didn't know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican," she told me. Her political consciousness awoke in the late '90s, with the dawning awareness that smoking - long linked to lung cancer but still a common-enough pedestrian pastime - was coming under attack. When she learned that the New York City council was holding a hearing on smoking bans she went to speak her mind. "They didn't give two shits what Jane Public thinks," she told me. And so Jane Public, after ordering a letterhead, became, against her herd-loathing instincts, CLASH.

I'm looking forward to seeing her because when I visited New York in 2005 we arranged to meet at her house in Brooklyn but the meeting never took place. Here's what happened.

It was a blisteringly hot day. I was wandering around and it took me ages to get a taxi. Eventually, after hanging about on a street corner close to Macy's, the famous Manhattan department store, a taxi finally stopped and I hopped in.

I gave the driver Audrey's address but overestimated his ability. Thirty minutes after we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge it dawned on me he had no idea where we were, or where we were going, and I had no idea either.

He was from Armenia, I think. He spoke very little English. He rang someone – his brother, perhaps – to help with directions. Meanwhile he kept on driving, looking for landmarks.

In desperation I tried calling Audrey (this was pre-smart phones) but my battered old Nokia wouldn't connect to her number. Eventually, with the meter ticking and any hope of finding her house long gone, I instructed my hapless driver to return to Manhattan.

The afternoon wasn't entirely wasted because on the return journey I asked him to drop me off at one of the handful of cigar bars in Manhattan.

The bar was air-conditioned but it wasn't plush. In fact it was quite scruffy and differed from an ordinary bar in just one respect – you could smoke a cigar indoors without the threat of prosecution.

Apart from two other customers and the barman it was also completely empty.

When I returned to my hotel later that evening I sent Audrey an apologetic email, explaining what had happened, but her terse response suggested she wasn't impressed and I've felt guilty about it ever since.

Twelve years on I will do my best to make amends.

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