Monday
Aug212017

All at sea

Apologies for the lack of posts these past few weeks. 

Towards the end of July I was extremely busy. Since then I've been on holiday.

Specifically I spent eight days aboard Queen Mary 2, crossing the Atlantic to New York with a single stop at Halifax, Nova Scotia. My wife and I then spent five days in Manhattan.

Our first transatlantic cruise was to mark our 25th wedding anniversary. But we didn't go alone. Accompanying us were our friends Bill and Patty, who got married a few weeks before us; and Gary and Helen, who married a year earlier in 1991.

I've known Gary since we were at university in Aberdeen and I've known Bill even longer. We were at the same primary school in Wormit, north Fife, and later went to the same secondary school, Madras College, in St Andrews.

(By coincidence, someone who was in my English class at Aberdeen responded to a photo I posted on Facebook by declaring, "Good grief. We must have passed you in Southampton. Just got off yesterday morning!" Small world.)

Anyway, I've been on several cruises in recent years – to the Baltics, Iceland/Norway, East and West Mediterranean – and this was certainly different.

On a 'normal' cruise you spend almost as much time off the ship as you do on board. Or it certainly feels like that. Every other day (sometimes daily) you arrive in yet another port and have five or six hours to eat, drink and wander around, but always with an eye on the clock.

I've lost count of the number of places we've visited (the list includes Tallin, Helsinki, Stockholm, St Petersburg, Reykjavík, Seville, Rome, Cannes, Dubrovnik and Santorini) but apart from a handful of memories there's little to say because we weren't there long enough.

Instead, on every one of those cruises the announcement I craved most was, 'Tomorrow is a day at sea'.

On a transatlantic cruise almost every day is a 'day at sea'. The one exception was Halifax where we got off, hopped on an ancient Routemaster bus and enjoyed a 90-minute tour of the city.

(I recommend bus tours. Instead of wandering round aimlessly you see something of the city and if there's something that takes your fancy – like a brewery or an enticing waterside bar or restaurant – you can go back to it, if there's time.)

Anyway, after six days at sea I appreciated Halifax more than I might have done had we been getting on and off every day or so.

I was happy though to return to the ship because if there's one thing cruising does to you it's this: you become a little institutionalised. 

Notwithstanding the well-known fact that a week on board a cruise ship can add at least half a stone to your weight unless you exercise some discipline, you are inexorably drawn to yet another cream tea followed (a few hours later) by cocktails, three-course dinner and several (shared) bottles of wine.

That night, lying in your 'stateroom' feeling bloated and a little queasy, you convince yourself that tomorrow you'll eat and drink less.

It makes no difference. Come morning you're back in the restaurant eating blueberry pancakes (with gallons of maple syprup) followed by kippers and a full English (or American).

The latter includes bacon, eggs, black pudding and Cumberland sausage, the latter hash browns and corn beef.

Soon it will be time for lunch, and the cycle continues.

Although it's larger and can carry more passengers (2,620) than the Queen Victoria (2,014), another Cunard ship we've been on, the QM2 is significantly smaller than the latest generation of cruise ships, most of which resemble floating hotels with the largest carrying 6,780 passengers.

It's built though to be far more stable on a transatlantic cruise. 

Funnily enough, at a tobacco event in London a couple of years ago one of the speakers was discussing smoking on the great cruise liners of the past and he mentioned that the original Queen Mary was renowned for 'rolling', which caused a lot of seasickness.

That was the norm, apparently, and passengers just had to accept it. In the Thirties, of course, there was no alternative if you wanted to travel from Europe to America, or vice versa – unless you went by airship.

Airships were the Concorde of their day. They were significantly faster than ocean liners, saving several days' travel, and were therefore popular with businessmen.

Airships were also pretty safe, until the Hindenberg disaster altered people's perceptions. (Even then the majority of the 100 passengers and crew escaped the blazing inferno.)

In order to keep the weight down however facilities were relatively spartan. Cabins were more like the compartments you'd find on a sleeper train and there were no theatres or ballrooms. Obviously.

Contrast that with a ship like the Queen Mary where, bouts of seasickness aside, first class passengers in particular could travel in enormous comfort.

As it happens we didn't encounter any seriously bad weather on our trip. Some days it was overcast or foggy but the sea was never more than mildly choppy and often very calm. Only once were we warned not to walk on the outside decks.

Talking of which, and in line with most of today's cruise ships, smoking is now banned almost everywhere on the QM2 with the exception of "designated areas of the open deck on the aft of Deck 7".

To be fair there were seats, tables and even deckchairs in the 'smoking area', which offered a good view of the ocean beyond, but how long before those God awful joggers start to complain that 'their' air is being polluted?

In my experience the entertainment on cruise ships is a mixed bag. There are no shortage of things to do but I prefer to find a quiet spot (with a waiter close at hand) where I can read without interruption whilst drinking coffee or something a little stronger.

Shows in the ship's theatre tend to err on the side of cheesy but they're rarely more than 45 minutes.

Daytime entertainment will include a guest speaker who will give two or three presentations in return (I assume) for a complimentary holiday and a suitable fee.

Last year (aboard the Queen Victoria) it was Baroness Wheatcroft, the former business and city editor of The Times, who later became editor of the Sunday Telegraph.

This year the QM2 events team chose to book Lord Paddick, the retired police officer who stood as the Lib Dem candidate in the London mayoral elections of 2008 and 2012. Oddly enough, the American passengers who attended his lectures seemed to love him.

However the daytime programme was dominated by a series of very well-attended events featuring American veterans of World War II, including a sprightly 93-year-old who took part in the D-Day landings.

Day after day one veteran after another received a standing ovation. Quite what the German passengers on board made of it I really don't know.

Anyway, we arrived in New York, eight days after leaving Southampton, in the early hours of Saturday, August 12.

But that's another story ...

Above: arriving in Nova Scotia, photographed from my bed! Below: Manhattan from our cabin balcony, shortly after our arrival in New York.

Wednesday
Aug022017

Good news

Last week I mentioned my dispute with Indigo UK who manage the car park at my local train station.

You can read the sorry story here - Taken for a park and ride.

Despite the fact that I have taken the matter up with the Parking On Private Land Appeal service (POPLA), and advised Indigo of that fact, the company has passed the matter on to a debt collection agency and I am now being chased for £170.

This afternoon I spoke to someone at the agency (who was very helpful) and the next stage, if I don't cough up pronto, is a letter from the legal department followed by the threat of court action.

He promised me though that as long as it doesn't go to court it shouldn't cost me more than a few hundred pounds (that I will never get back) to continue my challenge to the original penalty.

So that's good news.

I'll keep you posted.

Update: This gets better and better.

I rang POPLA this morning to check what's happening with my appeal. Incredibly, despite having received an email ten days ago confirming receipt of my appeal, they claimed to have no record of an appeal.

They asked for my verification code (the 10-digit number Indigo gave me when rejecting my original appeal) and my car registration number.

Nope, they said. My registration number doesn't tally with the number associated with the verification code Indigo gave me.

"That's because Indigo have screwed up," I said. "In the letter they sent me rejecting my appeal they referred to my 'motorcycle'.

"You'll probably find that verification number they've given me actually relates to the registration number of a motorcycle that has nothing to do with me!"

The long and the short of it is this. Despite having received and acknowledged my (second) appeal, POPLA has not progressed it one iota.

Instead they have asked me to write to them again and their IT department will look into it.

They also suggested that if I'm dissatisfied with Indigo (I am!) I should write to a third body, the British Parking Association.

My reaction wasn't very polite but can you blame me?

Monday
Jul312017

Observations on 'Dunkirk' 

I've seen 'Dunkirk' twice now.

The first time was at my local Cineworld. I then saw it on an IMAX screen in Milton Keynes.

I won't review the film because I'm no good at reviews and there are a million out there already. (See Rotten Tomatoes.)

But I do recommend it.

The first time I went with my son. We both enjoyed it but I made the rookie mistake of reading many of the mostly superlative reviews in advance and it's hard for anything to live up to that level of hype.

The one aspect of the film that slightly disappointed us was the scale. In reality there were almost 400,000 soldiers awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk.

Over 900 vessels were involved in Operation Dynamo including over 700 'little ships', with 15 Spitfire squadrons providing air cover.

'Dunkirk', a £150m Hollywood movie, doesn't even hint at this. What we see is a few thousand extras on a largely deserted beach, one or two warships, a handful of private boats and three Spitfires.

Ironically 'Their Finest', a small budget movie about the making of a wartime propaganda film about Dunkirk, addressed this logistical issue.

Released earlier this year there's an amusing scene where the tricks of a pre-CGI age are demonstrated in all their glory.

What appears to be a beach heaving with soldiers is actually a piece of glass placed in front of the camera. It was nevertheless surprisingly effective and the audience laughed when the subterfuge was revealed.

'Dunkirk' director Christopher Nolan is having none of that. CGI too is kept to a minimum.

What we have instead is a series of relatively intimate vignettes with the emphasis on verisimilitude, and credit to him for that.

The soldiers on the beach are not computer-generated, they are real people.

The small flotilla of 'little ships' is mostly genuine too - 12 or 13 actually took part in the Dunkirk retreat.

The Spitfires are authentic working aircraft.

Compare this to the bombastic, CGI-driven nature of every other Hollywood blockbuster.

Prior to the Cineworld screening of 'Dunkirk' we sat through trailers for several forthcoming films.

One was yet another Marvel Comic movie. Another was a 'Game of Thrones' style fantasy.

A third was an unbelievable and ludicrously over the top disaster movie built on the premise that one day we'll be able to control the weather from space but what happens if it all goes horribly wrong.

I assure you that, regardless of one or two minor flaws, 'Dunkirk' is a masterpiece by comparison and we should be grateful Nolan has made a film that can be watched by adults as well as teenagers.

In short, warmly recommended. Disregard the hype (difficult I know) and you'll enjoy it even more.

Most important, watch it at an IMAX cinema. The difference is significant.

The picture was clearer, the surround sound far more intense. There were moments when the seats positively trembled in sync with the permanently throbbing soundtrack and the inevitable explosions.

Oddly the paucity of soldiers, aircraft and ships seemed to matter less on the larger screen.

I think it's because the experience is so much more immersive. Rather than observing the protagonists you feel you're with them in their battle for survival.

Best of all are the airborne dogfights that really come to life on the bigger screen.

My wife, who does not as a rule enjoy war movies, preferring a quiet matinee-style film on a modest screen at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, said it was one of the best films she'd ever seen.

Take it from me, that's some accolade.

PS. Interesting to note, from US reviews of the film, how little is known about the evacuation of Dunkirk in America.

The same is true, I'm sure, of us and important moments in US history.

A better appreciation of the history of our friends and foes is fundamental, in my view, to successful foreign relations.

The Foreign Office no doubt understands this which is why so many ambassadors and civil servants are accused of 'going native'.

But that's another story for another day.

PPS. Have IMAX screens got smaller? Prior to last week I'd only been to two IMAX cinemas, one in London, the other in Glasgow, the last time almost ten years ago.

The Milton Keynes screen was large but it wasn't MASSIVE in the way the London and Glasgow screens were so I may have to watch 'Dunkirk' for a third time on an even bigger screen.

Sunday
Jul302017

Prejudice and prohibition

I couldn't help notice a tweet on the Forest timeline this morning.

It was posted by Prof Kevin Fenton, an advisor to Public Health England, retweeted by Clive Bates, former director of ASH, and 'liked' by Louise Ross, another hero of the vaping community.

It referred to a post published on the PHE blog that highlights the work of Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust in going 'smokefree' (sic):

A core part of their service is caring for people with mental health problems, a group who are much more likely to smoke, and to smoke more heavily, than the general population, leading to poorer physical health and lower life expectancy.

Louise Ross, Stop Smoking Service Manager, said:

"The patients understood why the wards would become smokefree, but they wanted to use e-cigarettes as a way to manage their nicotine needs. Our policy was written to reflect their views, and every effort has been made to help patients, staff and visitors see this as a positive step forward.

“Vaping is allowed in the grounds, and smoking is not [my emphasis]. This helps to manage nicotine needs while at the same time giving people a chance to try a far less harmful way of using nicotine than by smoking. Nicotine replacement products are also available through the pharmacy on site."

In other words, the Trust's pro-vaping policy is based primarily on a draconian measure that prohibits smoking inside and outside the building.

Thanks to this heavy-handed (some would say authoritarian) measure vulnerable patients have just two options - to quit smoking altogether or switch to e-cigarettes that they may not like or feel comfortable using (see The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers).

That sounds more like coercion to me but what do you expect when the pro-vaping movement is increasingly being driven by anti-smoking campaigners, many of them current or former employees of the tobacco control industry.

Full post: How one mental health Trust in Leicestershire is using e-cigarettes as a tool to go smokefree (PHE).

Vapers In Power, a group that used to oppose outdoor smoking bans, has also retweeted Prof Fenton's approving tweet.

Either VIP has changed its policy or they didn't bother reading the small print. Either way they have effectively endorsed a ban on smoking in the grounds of mental health units.

To understand what that means to some mental health patients read this fascinating transcript.

Saturday
Jul292017

Nicotine wars

Yesterday's announcement by the US Food and Drug Administration that it aims to lower nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes took many people by surprise, myself included.

I got the news from a friend in Dublin who was watching Bloomberg News. Thirty minutes later the story began to trickle in from other sources.

As it happens it was a big story in the States but there has been relatively little coverage over here. (Reports in the UK have focussed mostly on the "plummeting" fall in the price of tobacco shares, although that had rallied a bit by the close of play.)

The lack of interest was due partly to the time difference - the FDA announcement broke late afternoon in the UK - but the significance of the story may have been lost on Britain's news editors.

The first thing to note is that the announcement marks a major shift in US policy.

In particular, and more significant perhaps than the headline grabbing nicotine story, the FDA also declared that it would delay implementation of deeming regulations on e-cigarettes by four years.

If I understand it correctly, products that may have been taken off the market in 2018 now have a stay of execution. Likewise smaller e-cigarette companies that may have struggled to bring new products to market because of the proposed regulations, and the red tape involved, can breathe a little easier.

Vaping advocates are overjoyed, naturally, but I would issue a word of caution. I've long argued that the public health endgame is not a world that is smoke free but one that is nicotine free as well, and far from challenging that view the FDA announcement would appear to confirm it.

By announcing that it aims to reduce nicotine in cigarettes to "non-addictive" levels, the FDA has effectively declared war on the drug (if it hadn't before).

The justification is of course that while nicotine itself may be relatively harmless it hooks people to a product that is potentially bad for them.

Nevertheless the underlying message - the one that will be picked up by the media and the general public - is that nicotine itself is the enemy.

Furthermore, and despite the apparently favourable outcome for vapers, the FDA announcement is probably no more than a stay of execution.

Like it or not the long-term aim of the FDA, the World Health Organisation and every other public health body is to eradicate any form of nicotine addiction.

To achieve that goal the first stage is to lower the nicotine levels in all products that contain the drug.

It's a process that has already started. The EU's Tobacco Products Directive includes strict regulations on the nicotine strength of e-liquids and there's only one direction that's going to go.

The good news for confirmed smokers is that combustible cigarettes, in one form or another, are going to be around for a long time to come.

Unlike the manufacture of petrol or diesel cars, for example, prohibition is not an option because the authorities know full well what would happen.

Criminal gangs - bootleggers - would step in to meet demand and the government would lose control of the market and the huge amounts of revenue cigarettes generate.

As for lower nicotine cigarettes, I would fight attempts to make them compulsory for the same reason I would oppose excessive restrictions on the strength of alcohol in wine or beer or restrictions on the strength of caffeine in coffee.

The issue, as I keep saying, is one of choice. Offer consumers a range of products, including lower nicotine and nicotine-free cigarettes (and e-cigarettes), and let the market decide.

Driven by health considerations I suspect many consumers will opt, ultimately, for lower strength nicotine but that's speculation on my part.

What I do know, based on research, is that nicotine is not the only reason people smoke, hence Forest's response to yesterday's announcement:

"The FDA assumes wrongly that people only smoke for the nicotine. There are numerous reasons people start smoking or continue to smoke and nicotine is only one of them.

"If smoking was just about the nicotine hit the overwhelming majority of smokers would have switched to safer alternatives such as electronic cigarettes.

"What many people like most about smoking is the ritual and the taste and smell of tobacco. Lowering nicotine levels won't change that."

We also pointed out that according to a survey of over 600 "confirmed smokers" by the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow nearly all respondents (95%) gave pleasure as their primary reason for smoking:

Well over half (62%) liked the physical effect of nicotine, 55% liked the way smoking provided “time for oneself”, 52% liked the taste or smell of tobacco, and 49% liked the ritual involved in smoking.

Although a majority (56%) felt that they were addicted to smoking, many described the habit as a personal choice rather than behaviour determined by their dependence on nicotine.

See Forest's response to FDA announcement on lowering nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes.

Last night I also posted this on the Friends of Forest Facebook page:

"Question to smokers: would a reduction in nicotine levels encourage you to quit?"

Of those who commented not one said they would stop smoking.

Ironically, the biggest losers following the FDA's announcement could be the pharmaceutical industry.

After all, the biggest threats to Big Pharma's smoking cessation market are e-cigarettes and heated tobacco.

Given time to develop and mature, the market for non-pharma harm reduction products is potentially huge, 36.5 million people in the USA alone.

Far from being a death knell for the tobacco industry, yesterday's announcement by the FDA gave the companies what they need - time.

As for consumers - smokers and vapers - the jury, I think, is out.

If a product is legal consumers have a right to be tolerated and their choices treated with respect.

Neither the FDA nor a myriad of other public health bodies seem willing to acknowledge a very simple fact.

Millions of people worldwide smoke and vape not because they are hopelessly addicted to nicotine but because they enjoy it.

The war on nicotine is a war on ordinary people, legitimate consumers of a legal drug.

Yes, there are different degrees of risk between combustible cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, heated tobacco and other nicotine products, but adults have a right to choose.

Educate and inform but discrimination and denormalisation must end. Freedom of choice, that's the battle ahead, for vapers as much as smokers.

Thursday
Jul272017

Quote of the week: "Let's have a coffee soon."

I hadn't intended to write about this but it made me laugh so I thought I'd share it with you.

Last week a group called the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) posted an article about the launch of "two curious new groups", Forest EU and the Consumer Choice Center.

The back-to-back appearance of campaigns with similar objectives (to promote freedom of choice and defend the interests of consumers) appears to have piqued the interest of a group whose declared purpose is "exposing the power of corporate lobbying in the EU".

'Transparency' is a key issue for CEO, as it is for Forest. The delicious irony is that while Forest EU could not be more open, the same does not appear to be true of CEO.

Margarida Silva, CEO's representative at our launch party on May 31, even chose to disguise her presence by omitting to say who she worked for when she registered. She also used her personal rather than her professional email address.

Forest events are of course open to everyone - we have nothing to hide - so even had we known who she worked for and the nature of her investigation she would still have been very welcome.

Contrast that with the Brussels-based Smokefree Partnership, a coalition of anti-smoking groups (including ASH) that has already barred Forest EU director Guillaume Perigois from attending two of its events.

Needless to say CEO has no interest in the rather more opaque world of tobacco control which says more about them than they could ever say about us.

Meanwhile, responding to an email from Silva that contained no fewer than six questions about Forest EU, our man Perigois not only gave detailed answers, he was also the perfect gentleman:

Thanks for your email. Hope you enjoyed our Forest EU launch event on May 31st – I remember our nice chat there.

Please come to our next event on July 11th. And let’s have a coffee soon, too.

I expect hell will freeze over before our adversaries make a similar offer to Forest.

In the meantime, instead of relying on the execrable Tobacco Tactics website as a source of information, the laughly self-important Corporate Europe Observatory would do better to investigate the influence of Big Pharma on tobacco control in Brussels and beyond.

Now that's a report I would read.

PS. When the CEO article appeared last week someone posted a link on Facebook with the comment, "It's not flattering."

Oh, I don't know. The time to worry is when opponents, the media and self-appointed vigilantes ignore you.

See also: The incognito transparency activist (Forest EU blog).

Monday
Jul242017

Taken for a park and ride

A week ago the Telegraph reported that NHS staff faced losing their homes after a court ordered them to pay thousands in parking fines racked up at a Cardiff hospital:

A judge has ruled that the employees, including nurses, doctors and admin staff, must pay the charges dating back to April 2016 after losing a legal fight with Indigo, the private operator that manages the car park at the University Hospital of Wales.

One nurse reportedly owes £150,000 after the court ruled that £128 must be paid for each unpaid ticket, plus £26,000 in court fees.

You need to read the full report to get both sides of the story because it's easy – but incorrect, I think – to cast Indigo as the baddies.

Nevertheless last week's report coincided with my own stand off with the company. It's insignificant by comparison but bear with me while I get it off my chest.

Back in May I had to go away on business for a few days so I left my car in the car park at my local train station.

The car park is managed by Indigo but parking tickets can be purchased at the station ticket office.

I asked for a ticket to cover the period I was going to be away – Monday May 8 to Thursday May 11 inclusive.

The ticket office gave me two tickets, one for May 8 (half-day, £3.30), the other to cover a further three full days (£17.40).

I assumed the second ticket was for the period 9-11 May but the ticket office had made an error. Ticket number two began on May 8 and finished on May 10.

The two tickets therefore overlapped instead of covering the four consecutive days I had asked for.

I've been using that car park for almost 20 years and I've never had a problem before so it never crossed my mind to check.

Consequently when I returned on Thursday I found a penalty charge notice on my windscreen with a demand for £60 if paid within 14 days or more if I didn't.

So I appealed, explained what had happened, and sent photographs of my two tickets as evidence.

A month later I received an email from Indigo rejecting my appeal even though I had paid the full and correct fee for the time I was parked.

To add insult to injury the company's response to my appeal referred to my "motorcycle" and claimed I had parked within a "20-minute" bay. I don't have a motorcycle and my car was parked in a normal bay.

The email further informed me that "you have now reached the end of our internal appeals procedure" but added, "Should you remain dissatisfied with this decision, you may further your appeal to the Parking On Private Land Appeal service (POPLA)."

This I have done (albeit I may have missed the deadline by 48 hours) but I have no expectation of winning because no-one ever does, do they?

I know this is a trivial matter of no interest to anyone apart from me but what a shit world we live in where an honest mistake that has not hurt, inconvenienced or cost anyone anything (apart from the admin involved in rejecting my appeal) has led to a fine that is now in excess of £100 and could go higher if I choose to fight it further.

Grrr.

Wednesday
Jul192017

Media coverage of the Tobacco Control Plan announcement

Quick update on the media coverage of the Government's new Tobacco Control Plan.

Yesterday's announcement was reported widely online but coverage was substantially more muted in today's print editions.

Forest was quoted online by, among others, BBC News, The Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Star and City AM.

These reports were dominated, inevitably, by quotes from public health minister Steve Brine (more on him in a later post), ASH, Public Health England and the British Medical Association.

In general tobacco control welcomed the plan, with the proviso that to implement it there will have to be a substantial investment of public money.

The only critical voice was (of course) Forest. (Given the impact on individual liberty and the potential cost to the taxpayer of driving down smoking rates it's amazing how almost every liberal or free market pressure group goes missing at moments like this.)

The Forest soundbites most often quoted were:

"In the 21st century tobacco control policies should focus on harm reduction products, not prohibition and other restrictive practises."

"The most important stakeholder is the consumer, yet they are routinely ignored by Government. Ministers should stop lecturing smokers and engage with them."

"The Tobacco Control Plan should include a systematic review of the impact of measures such as the display ban and plain packaging. It's time too to question the use of public money to fund stop-smoking services and other anti-smoking campaigns."

You can read our full response here.

We didn't do any broadcast interviews yesterday. I did LBC and BBC Radio Oxford this morning but it's been pretty quiet on that front.

When I get a moment I might post something along the lines of, 'What does the Tobacco Control Plan mean for smokers and vapers?'

PS. Tomorrow I shall be on a local BBC radio station talking about vaping in the workplace. Stay tuned!

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