Sunday
May072017

Anti-smoking campaigners target smoking in the home

The president of the Faculty of Public Health wants smoking banned in all new council houses.

Professor John Middleton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said adults smoking in the home damaged the development of children’s lungs and put babies at risk of cot death.

"Housing associations and councils are looking at smoke-free housing buildings. Where children are involved I think there is a real case for it,” Middleton said.

The Sunday Times has the story here, although it's behind a paywall.

ASH, naturally, support the idea without being quite so explicit. Nevertheless the meaning behind these weasel words is clear:

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said the anti-smoking charity (sic) had a call last week from a woman whose granddaughter had cystic fibrosis and had never been able to visit because neighbours’ smoke from communal areas drifted into the grandmother’s home.

Arnott said people were often "frustrated by councils’ and social landlords' failure to take action".

I'm quoted as follows:

Simon Clark, director of the pro-smoking (sic) campaign group Forest, said that a ban “would penalise unfairly those who can’t afford to buy their own homes”.

The full comment I gave them (not used) read:

"Banning smoking in social housing would set a very dangerous precedent. Not only would it be a gross invasion of privacy, it would penalise unfairly those who can't afford to buy their own homes.

"How would the policy be enforced? It could create a snooper's charter allowing people to snitch on neighbours, especially those they don't get on with. Children might inadvertently give their parents away, resulting in possible eviction.

"It's not second hand smoke that's making people's lives a misery. It's puritanical bodies like the Faculty of Public Health who, having campaigned to ban smoking in every pub and club in the country, are now trying to dictate how people behave in their own private space as well."

Middleton is one of the public health 'chiefs' who has been pressing the Government to publish its new tobacco control plan without delay (Doctors urge May to publish anti-smoking strategy).

By calling for what many people will think is fairly extreme action, I imagine the strategy is to force ministers to introduce other policies that can be presented as less draconian.

The long-term goal however is clear and thanks to the Obama administration the US now offers governments worldwide a model when it comes to smoking and social housing.

What disgusts me is how shameless anti-smoking campaigners are. Social housing or not, it's still someone's home. As I told the Sunday Times, why should people be discriminated against just because they can't afford to buy their own house?

Whether it's taxation or smoking bans, the likes of ASH just love giving the less well-off a good kicking.

Ultimately though policies such as this are just a Trojan horse to ban smoking in all housing, regardless of wealth.

The 'good' news, if you can call it that, is that it might put 'passive' smoking back on the agenda.

One of the problems we've had since public smoking bans were introduced a decade ago is that no-one, least of all the media, wants to talk about the impact of 'secondhand' smoke in enclosed spaces, public or otherwise.

As far as journalists and politicians are concerned it's yesterday's news. Passive smoking kills (allegedly) and there's no more to be said. The debate, in their eyes, is over.

By putting smoking in the home up for discussion it means there's an opportunity to reassess the impact of 'secondhand' smoke.

Perhaps (and I don't say this with any confidence) we may be able to persuade ministers to revisit the evidence and reconsider the extent to which smoking should be restricted.

If the anti-smoking industry wants to have that battle I'm all for it.

Saturday
May062017

Location, location, location

Just back after 24 hours in Dublin.

I caught an early flight out yesterday and was home by eleven this morning.

My mission was to locate a suitable venue for a series of dinners Forest is organising in the city.

The initiative is called Burning Issues and each dinner will have a different theme. The plan is to invite 12-16 people for a roundtable discussion kick-started by a guest speaker.

There's nothing original about the idea. I attended a very similar event in London a couple of years ago. It was organised by the Institute of Ideas and the format worked rather well.

By coincidence the speaker at the first Burning Issues dinner in Dublin next month will be Claire Fox, director of the IoI and an old friend of Forest.

Finding a suitable location isn't easy, though. There are plenty of restaurants with private dining rooms but we wanted to find somewhere with a smoking terrace adjacent to the room.

The size and shape of the room have to work too, and the location can't have too much background noise.

One restaurant on our shortlist would have been ideal except for the fact that the private dining area was only 'semi-private'. All that separated it from the main restaurant was a thick velvet drape.

It reminded me of a restaurant I went to in Rome ten years ago. The legislation in Italy allowed proprietors to have a separate smoking room as long as certain fairly strict conditions were met.

For example, smoking rooms had to be equipped with automatic sliding doors to stop smoke spreading to other areas.

Not in the restaurant I went to. The smoking 'room' was separated from the rest of the establishment by a simple curtain.

Above our heads however was a ventilation system with enormous pipes that resembled the engine room of a ship.

The set up seemed to work, though, and everyone was happy.

Anyway, in the brief time I was in Dublin I think we've whittled the shortlist down to two.

The first is one of the best restaurants in the city. It has two private dining rooms. One is next to the kitchen so guests can watch the chef at work.

The other is on the first floor and offers greater privacy. It has air conditioning and, most important, direct access to a covered smoking terrace.

The downside is the shape of the room. It's long and narrow, which isn't ideal for a roundtable discussion.

The location of the second option on our shortlist has three dining areas for hire. One is a room on the ground floor off the small and rather dark public bar.

It's the right shape and an adequate size but it doesn't have air conditioning. In June, even in Ireland, it could get a bit hot and you can't open the windows because there would be too much noise from passing traffic.

On the top floor there's a bright, typically Edwardian room with views over St Stephen's Green. There's even a small smoking area, although it looked and felt more like a fire escape to me.

There were three or four round tables seating 4-6 people per table. For a roundtable discussion however that wouldn't work because everyone has to sit together, not be seated on separate tables.

Which brings me to the most intriguing option – a small wooden 'lodge' at one end of the outdoor smoking terrace, complete with its own bar and a fully retractable roof.

It can accommodate 16-20 people, seated in a square. Weather permitting the roof can be opened allowing guests to dine al fresco.

The safer option is the first one. The restaurant has a good reputation and enquiries suggest people enjoy going there.

The second is a bit of a wild card but that can sometimes be more fun.

We'll make our decision on Monday.

Thursday
May042017

Brussels bound, again

At the end of this month we're hosting the official launch party for Forest EU.

The event takes place on May 31 at The Staff 42, a stylish bar restaurant just yards from the European Parliament.

By coincidence May 31 is also World No Tobacco Day.

Last year I was in Brussels on WNTD and I couldn't help noticing that the Smokefree Partnership, a coalition of tobacco control groups that includes ASH and Cancer Research UK, was hosting a reception to mark the Tobacco Products Directive and 'plain packaging progress in the EU'.

Naturally I endeavoured to get an invitation – but they didn't reply (sob). Instead I spent the evening watching football in an Irish bar off Avenue Louise.

I can't say Forest EU is the direct result of the Smokefree Partnership's little soirée. It did give the project the kick start it needed though because our long-term goal is to create our own coalition that is the antithesis of the anti-smoking lobby in Brussels.

Whether we succeed remains to be seen but if you'd like to join us in Brussels on May 31 and help make our voices heard it would be great to see you. Click here to register.

PS. Last week I was in Brussels to attend the launch of Students for Liberty's Consumer Choice Center.

Next week I am returning for the first Nanny State Index conference. After that it's the Forest EU launch party.

How ironic that just as the UK is preparing to Brexit I find myself semi-resident in the heart of the EU!

Monday
May012017

Lifestyle and the NHS

I was on The Big Questions (BBC1, above) yesterday.

The programme was broadcast from a secondary school just outside York. They wanted guests to arrive by 8.45 so I had to leave home shortly after six to drive the 138 miles from Cambridgeshire.

When I arrived there were outside broadcast vans in the car park and the staff room had been commandeered as a green room.

I introduced myself to one or two guests including Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum and we talked about Formula 1 (which he likes) and boxing (which he doesn't).

Presenter Nicky Campbell then came to say hello. As I've mentioned before, Nicky and I were at Aberdeen University together. I didn't know him well - he was one or two years below me - but our paths crossed via a student newspaper I edited and I've followed his career with interest.

We had a brief chat before we were taken downstairs to a large room that had been converted into a makeshift studio.

Prior to the live broadcast there was a 'rehearsal' to check mics etc. Guests and members of the audience were encouraged to talk about the election but as I was wearing my Forest hat I preferred to keep quiet.

If you watch The Big Questions you'll know that each week they feature three topics, devoting approximately 18-minutes to each one.

This week the subjects were 'Should the NHS ration according to lifestyle?', 'Is welfare reform working?' and 'Are your actions more important than your beliefs?'

The lifestyle issue was first up but instead of developing into a debate it was more a series of non-related statements by various guests, followed by two or three comments from members of the audience.

My contribution was limited to a handful of soundbites.

It's "morally wrong", I said, to deny people operations because of their lifestyles.

It's also "cruel" because if you're waiting for a hip or knee replacement you may be in "massive, physical pain" or unable to move.

Delaying operations would still cost the NHS money, I said, because patients may need medication and physiotherapy while they are waiting for their operations.

"No smoker should feel any guilt for smoking," I added, because they make a "massive contribution" to the welfare state and the NHS would "struggle without the tobacco taxes that smokers contribute."

I got a smattering of applause for saying I was overweight and would like to lose weight but didn't want the government to force me to lose weight by "introducing, for example, sugar taxes."

Later I got a bit more applause when I tackled a member of the audience who complained about the food and drink industries "supersizing us" (sic) with "giant capucinos you could take a swim in."

"People have a choice not to drink these things," I retorted. "We can make up our own minds."

There appeared to be very little support for the idea that the NHS should ration treatment on the basis of lifestyle but the 'debate' was so unfocused it was difficult to draw any conclusions.

As usual some speakers seemed to think the answer to everything lies in pouring more and more money into the health service or increasing taxes.

In hindsight I regret not suggesting that health is the new religion, with people increasingly classified as saints or sinners.

Given the nature of the programme, which describes itself as a series of "moral, ethical and religious" debates, it would have been more apposite.

Next time, perhaps.

PS. You can watch yesterday's episode of The Big Questions here.

They were going to describe Forest as "pro-smoking". After I put them right the caption on the screen was changed to 'Forest, lifestyle choice lobby'.

That has a nice ring to it.

PPS. My daughter, after seeing the programme, said, "You always seem so angry."

It's not me, it's my job!

Saturday
Apr292017

How ignorance and propaganda influenced the smoking ban

Final word on my You and Yours interview with former Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt.

I mentioned yesterday that the 'as live' interview was edited quite heavily with the result that my reference to the Enstrom/Kabat study on passive smoking was omitted from the broadcast.

Interestingly, Hewitt admitted she had never heard of it, despite the fact that it remains the largest single study on the impact on secondhand smoke on people regularly exposed - year after year - to other people's tobacco smoke.

Two more things that didn't make the broadcast.

During the recording she explained that one of the factors in her decision to push for a comprehensive smoking ban was evidence that bans had reduced heart attacks.

She was referring to the famous 'heart attack miracle' in Helena, Montana, that has been debunked many times. (Fergus Mason wrote about it here only this week.)

Her comments were, I think, cut but it's significant she was aware of the Helena study but not the Enstrom/Kabat research.

In contrast her predecessor John Reid was very well briefed on the evidence on passive smoking - and made it his business to be so.

Unlike Hewitt he took the trouble to speak to ALL sides of the debate, including Forest.

Our late chairman Lord Harris and I were invited to a meeting with Reid and his senior advisor Julian Le Grand at the Department of Health.

Reid was clearly sceptical about the risks of passive smoking and when he was asked to comment Le Grand stated that the evidence was indeed weak.

The point is, Reid and his senior adviser were aware of all the evidence and spoke to all sides. Hewitt wasn't, and didn't.

Another thing that didn't make the cut was the story of Nick Hogan, the Bolton publican who received a six-month prison sentence for failing to pay fines received for allowing customers to smoke on his premises for one day only (July 1, 2007) in defiance of the ban.

I explained how I had travelled to Salford Jail to help oversee Nick's release after an online appeal had raised £9,000 to pay the accumulated fines.

The former Health Secretary said she knew nothing of that either - despite the headlines it attracted at the time.

Unfortunately her ignorance of this and other smoking-related issues wasn't broadcast and will have to remain a secret.

PS. There was an amusing postscript to our meeting with John Reid.

Prior to the meeting Lord Harris and I were under strict instructions to keep it confidential. Nobody was to know we were meeting and it was to take place under strict Chatham House rules.

Imagine my surprise - and consternation - when minutes after leaving the meeting I got a call from the Press Association asking me to comment on the meeting.

I was worried Reid might think we had gone straight to the press and this might jeopardise future engagement.

So I admitted the meeting had taken place but said nothing about our (extremely agreeable) discussion.

It took me a few minutes to realise that the source of the 'leak' must have been Reid's office and we were unwitting participants in what I imagine was his battle with the tobacco control lobby.

Friday
Apr282017

You and Yours (the smoking ban)

Further to my previous post ...

Click here to listen to the You and Yours item about the smoking ban, broadcast on Radio 4 at 12.30 today.

Although it was recorded 'as live' it's been edited quite a bit. At one point I launched into a diatribe against politicians like Patricia Hewitt. That's gone.

Without mentioning Enstrom and Kabat by name I also referred to their study, published in 2003, that found that the impact of long-term exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in the home may be considerably weaker than generally believed. (I may have used the word "insignificant" instead.)

That's gone too, possibly because Hewitt said she was unaware of it. Why am I not surprised? It may have been the largest ever study into the effects of 'passive' smoking but if she was 100 per cent reliant on the anti-smoking industry for her information you can be sure they kept quiet about it.

I praised her predecessor John Reid for trying to find a compromise but that didn't make the final edit either. 

And without listening to it again I think they also omitted my reference to Office for National Statistics surveys that in the years preceding the legislation repeatedly found that only a minority (approximately 30 per cent) supported a comprehensive ban.

Instead, Hewitt justified the legislation by referring to the cross party support it had among MPs, as if their views were more important than the general public. That's when I had my little rant against politicians!

To be fair, Hewitt's contribution was also edited. She spoke far more than is evident in the programme, which is one of the reasons I became a bit tetchy and argumentative. They've toned that down as well!

Finally, email to Forest from a listener following the programme:

I’ve just caught the discussion on [You and Yours], including comments by one of your supporters / officers, about public smoking not necessarily affecting others.

I couldn’t disagree more. I have lost count of the times I have had to cross the road to avoid the deeply unpleasant smoke from someone walking ahead of me, with a cigarette on.  

Smoking outdoors does have an affect on others as smoke drifts.  My wife and I have on several occasions left outdoor areas – eg the sitting area outside a café – because of drifting smoke.

Smokers should have a responsibility to keep their habit to themselves, and not inflict it on others.  I therefore fully support any proposals to extend the ban on smoking outdoors. 

Spare me.

Friday
Apr282017

Patrician Hewitt revisits the smoking ban

I recorded an interview yesterday for You and Yours, the Radio 4 consumer programme.

They wanted me to go head-to-head with Patricia Hewitt, the former Secretary of State for Health who introduced the smoking ban in England, to discuss both the run up to the ban and the impact it's had.

I was in a small studio in London - on my own - talking to Hewitt and presenter Peter White down the line.

The item, recorded 'as live', began with a clip featuring comments from smokers at a pub in Liverpool.

The first declared that the smoking ban was the "best thing this country ever did". (Better than abolishing slavery or fighting the Nazis?!)

The others weren't quite so adamant but there was a general consensus that the ban was 'a good thing'.

Our segment began like an episode of The Reunion, the Radio 4 series that reunites a group of people 'intimately involved in a moment of modern history'.

Hewitt explained her role and why a comprehensive ban was introduced when her predecessor John Reid had proposed exemptions for pubs that didn't serve food and private members' clubs.

She admitted a blanket ban wasn't in the 2005 Labour Party manifesto but said the government was under enormous pressure from the BMA and the rest of the medical profession to introduce the policy.

We traded various points until I grew a little tired of Hewitt's relentlessly patrician tone. (I can think of only one other politician whose voice grates so much and that's Diane Abbott.)

She was also talking at quite some length so I began to interrupt and argue. It got a bit heated (on my side), quite unlike a normal episode of You and Yours, so it will be interesting to hear how it comes across.

The funny thing is, as I left the building who should I bump into but ... Patricia Hewitt! (Unknown to me she was in an adjacent studio.)

The first thing that struck me was how small she is - she's no taller than my mother and similarly petite - which is not how I have always imagined her.

I apologised for being a little "aggressive" and we had a perfectly friendly five-minute chat, although it was clear we were never going to agree on much. We parted however on good terms. (Am I allowed to say that?)

The producer later emailed me to say "Lively stuff!" I'm told it will be broadcast around 12.30pm today. Tune in!

Thursday
Apr272017

No evidence that plain packaging affects the number of young people smoking

A report published today suggests that 300,000 smokers in Britain may quit by May 2018 as a result of plain packaging.

According to the BBC:

The Cochrane Review team ... estimated that the number of people who smoked in the UK could go down by 0.5% by May 2018, although they said the current evidence was limited [my emphasis].

The findings were backed up by a report from the Australian government, which showed a similar drop in smoking prevalence - 0.55% - following the introduction of plain packaging there in 2012.

Naturally this has been seized upon by anti-smoking campaigners. Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, told the Sun:

"Standard packs are a landmark public health policy the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail to prevent. As evidence grows it is easy to see why.

"Smokers already saying they feel differently about their pack of cigarettes and in years to come we expect to see fewer young people smoking as they are no longer seduced by glitzy, brightly coloured packs."

I don't know if Deborah bothered to read the report but on this point co-author Jamie Hartmann-Boyce is absolutely clear. There was no evidence, she said, that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking.

Think about that for a minute. How many times were we told that the raison d'etre for introducing plain packaging was to reduce youth smoking rates by deterring young people from smoking?

And yet, four years after the introduction of plain packaging in Australia, there was no evidence that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking.

Judged on that issue alone plain packaging has been a monumental failure.

Giles Roca, director general of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, summed it up nicely when he told the BBC:

"This report destroys the rationale for the introduction of plain packaging by finding no evidence that it actually acts a deterrent to young people in taking up smoking - this was at the core of the government's and health campaigners' argument for its introduction."

Instead there are desperate references to a "six per cent increase in people trying to give up smoking" and an "increase in calls to quit smoking helplines".

Talk about grasping at straws.

Forest, btw, is quoted in both the BBC and Guardian reports.

Update: The BBC appears to have made a subtle change to its report, presumably at the request of Deborah Arnott or the authors of the review.

Whether it was prompted by the headline of this post, who knows, but I'm happy to clear things up.

If I remember the BBC report originally read:

There was no evidence that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking, she [Jamie Hartmann-Boyce] said.

Now it reads:

However, there were no studies showing whether changing the packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking.

A subtle difference.

Hartman-Boyce's name has also disappeared from the amended version. I'm pretty sure the original report quoted her because I noted that she was referred to as the 'co-author'.

Rather than a direct quote the BBC report paraphrased what she said and I suspect that's where the 'error' crept in.

My headline remains accurate however because, whichever way you spin it, studies or no studies, there is no evidence that plain packaging affects the number of young people smoking.

Like it or not, Deborah, that is an undisputed fact.

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