Boxing news

Good luck to my son who is representing Oxford in the 110th Boxing Varsity Match at the Cambridge Corn Exchange tonight.

I'm not sure how he's done it, to be honest, because he took up boxing – having previously played rugby – less than 18 months ago.

The first time he went in the ring to spar was, I think, this time last year and his first competitive boxing match was six weeks ago in the annual Town v. Gown event at the Oxford Union.

Training – which included a week in Tenerife where they got up at 6.00am and ran to the top of the local volcano several times – has been pretty intensive.

However he's not the first person in my family to take an interest in boxing. Both my grandfather (on my mother's side) and his son (my uncle) were very keen on the sport.

If I remember correctly my grandfather, a GP in Wembley, had a role with the British Amateur Boxing Association. My uncle, also a doctor, was medical officer to the British Olympic delegation in Seoul before being appointed chairman of the British Olympic Association Medical Committee.

My own interest in boxing is limited to watching the occasional fight on TV. I put it down to being punched in the face, once, when I was 15 or 16. I remember everything about it – the time, the place – and I didn't like it.

Since then my life has been dictated by a simple desire never to get punched in the face (or anywhere else) again.

Anyway, my son's last supper before tonight's bout was a couple of protein bars and a pot of cottage cheese.

I'm sure he'll make up for it after the fight.

PS. I like the understated way the event is being promoted online:

Cambridge go to war against Oxford on home ground in the violent realisation of one of the world’s greatest rivalries. History will be made as the Women’s Varsity is fought in Cambridge for the first time; prepare for a night of drama and intense action.

Update: Very proud of my son last night. He lost on a split decision but the MC summed it up when he hailed both boxers with the words, "It was a war in there!"

Parental pride aside, I have huge respect for all the boxers on both teams. It's one thing to train and spar in the local gym. Stepping into a ring in front of 700 raucous spectators is something else.


As we've been saying, food is the new tobacco

Some of you may have read reports this week about plain packaging for high calorie food.

According to the Guardian:

Selling high calorie foods in plain packaging could help in the battle against obesity according to a leading researcher who has won a share of the most lucrative prize in neuroscience for his work on the brain’s reward system.

The colourful wrapping and attractive advertising of calorie-rich foods encourage people to buy items that put them at risk of overeating and becoming obese in the future, said Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

“We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories,” Schultz said at a press conference held on Monday to announce the winners of the 2017 Brain Prize. “There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.”

“Colourful wrapping of high energy foods of course makes you buy more of that stuff and once you have it in your fridge, it’s in front of you every time you open the fridge and ultimately you’re going to eat it and eat too much,” he added.

There was a flurry of excitement on Twitter with lots of 'I told you so' tweets.

I avoided the temptation but it's worth pointing out that the Tobacco Tactics website – which is the work of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath – still has an entry that reads:

In the plain packaging debate in the UK, Forest has led the Hands Off Our Packs campaign, which claims that if cigarettes are to be sold in plain packaging, it is only a matter of time before plain packaging and large health warnings will be applied to other consumer products, such as fizzy drinks, fatty foods and alcohol. However, although some public health advocates are calling for increased regulation on alcohol and food, the case of tobacco is unique.

Perhaps they should edit that page before they look even more stupid.

PS. Long before plain packaging was a serious threat I gave a speech to the Independent Seminar on the Open Society (ISOS), an annual one-day conference for 200 sixth-form students organised by the Adam Smith Institute.

The year was 2004 and the subject was 'Food is the new tobacco'. I got a decent reception but I don't think many believed me.

Now, perhaps, people will start listening.


No Smoking Day: who will put this zombie event out of its misery?

I'm currently in Dublin but I shall be listening with interest to the Chancellor's Budget statement.

Hopefully there won't be a nasty surprise awaiting smokers. A tax increase on cigarettes of inflation plus two per cent (the policy George Osborne introduced) was bad enough but ASH want that increased to inflation plus five per cent.

Last year rolling tobacco got hit with (off the top of my head) a 15 per cent increase and the same could happen again.

The reasoning behind that is that as the cost of cigarettes has gone up smokers have switched in increasing numbers to cheaper rolling tobacco so let's clobber that as well.

There's also talk of a minimum excise tax (MET) which will effectively mean that the cost of the cheapest cigarettes brands will go up.

Again, this is partly to counteract the trend – provoked by high excise duty and, more recently, plain packaging – whereby smokers are increasingly driven to purchase the cheapest brands.

In practise of course many smokers by-pass ordinary retailers in favour of the black market.

Anyway it's also No Smoking Day today which may come as a surprise to some of you because I've not seen a single mention of it in any national newspaper.

Regional newspapers will give it a mention, especially if there's a local No Smoking Day stunt or initiative – but, as I've commented on before, NSD is a pale shadow of its former self.

In 2011 the No Smoking Day organisation (which used to have a budget of, I think, £600,000 a year) merged with the British Heart Foundation but it's hard to tell who's running NSD this year.

The event doesn't have a dedicated website and I can't find any mention of it on the BHF website, which is bizarre.

Interestingly, if you click on the URL it redirects you to a page on the BHF website that mentions smoking but not No Smoking Day.

The No Smoking Day Twitter profile has two links – one to a site called Health Unlocked, the other to a stop smoking page on the NHS Choices website.

NSD tweets are also written in the first person which is generally an indication of just how small the 'organisation' is.

Despite that the Health Unlocked (No Smoking Day) site says that NSD is "supported by an alliance of UK health bodies and charities" which suggests the British Heart Foundation has decided it no longer wants to run it alone, but it's still not clear who's in charge.

Meanwhile, if you Google 'No Smoking Day 2017', the first thing you'll see is a promoted link to the Nicorette website.

The next link takes you to a page on what appears to be a Scottish Government website (NHS Inform).

After that there are a couple of calendar style websites that mention No Smoking Day followed by NSD's Wikipedia entry that was last updated, it seems, in 2011.

In typical Wikipedia fashion it states that 'No Smoking Day in the UK takes place on March 11 annually' which is obviously wrong because No Smoking Day takes place on the second Wednesday in March every year so the date varies.

The organisers of No Smoking Day (whoever they are, or were) have always been at pains to stress that the event was targeted only at people who wanted to quit.

It may have started that way but in the years I've worked for Forest the organisers have been more than happy to embrace many anti-smoking initiatives, including local smoking bans and other policies designed to restrict the freedoms of everyone who wants to light up.

Before the smoking ban, for example, No Smoking Day was seen as a great way to get publicity for a local business.

All you had to do was announce that from No Smoking Day you were introducing an office smoking ban and you could almost guarantee the story would appear in the local paper.

Since then it's been more difficult to use NSD as a promotional or campaign tool but it hasn't stopped people trying.

This morning for example I was on BBC Radio Suffolk discussing a decision by Ipswich Hospital to ban smoking anywhere on site.

Naturally they chose No Smoking Day to start enforcing the policy which includes demolishing the existing smoking shelters.

How kind – and considerate.

But that's what No Smoking Day does to people. It brings out the worst in some because it legitimises fear and discrimination.

Thankfully No Smoking Day is rapidly becoming a zombie event. Someone should put it out of its misery.


Burning your £££s to help overseas smokers quit

We know about the millions of £££s of taxpayers' money squandered on stop smoking services that fewer and fewer smokers actually use.

We know about the millions of £££s of public money given to anti-smoking groups such as ASH, ASH Scotland and ASH Wales.

We know too that the tobacco control industry wants the government to spend millions more on mass media campaigns designed to 'persuade' smokers to quit.

Crazy though that expenditure is, at least the money is being targeted at UK residents.

In contrast, consider the £15,000,000 (at least) of UK taxpayers' money that has been allocated to help non-UK residents to stop smoking.

This isn't a new story – it first appeared in November ('Britain's aid budget is being used to support 'quitting measures' in less developed countries') – but today's papers suggest it's an issue that's gaining traction.

According to The Sun:

About £15 million of Britain’s health budget will go on helping foreigners quit smoking.

It is part of £150 million from the Department of Health money pot which went on overseas aid last year — a figure which has ballooned in three years.

The same story appeared in the Mail and the Express but the headline in the Express summed it up best – Foreign aid farce.

Don't hold your breath but perhaps MPs will now demand a full independent audit that identifies every penny of taxpayers' money that is being spent on all smoking cessation initiatives overseas.

Initiatives, for example, like last year's "researcher links workshop" in Uruguay. According to the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS) website:

Following a successful grant application, a group of UKCTAS researchers have in collaboration with colleagues in Uruguay’s University of the Republic organised a workshop to explore how research into smoking and alcohol use in pregnancy can be used to develop and implement effective policies to curb the use of these substances, which remain a problem in many parts of the world, including the UK and Uruguay.

The British Council, which sponsored the event, receives funding from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (ie the taxpayer).

And according to UKCTAS the taxpayer-funded British Embassy also chipped in.

The question is, how many more smoking-cessation projects like the Uruguayan workshop are funded with our money?

Sending a group of researchers on a round trip of 13,600 miles to link up with public health professionals on the other side of the world may not be the most scandalous or extravagant use of taxpayers' money but it all adds up.

With the UK one of the first countries to commit to funding the next phase of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) negotiations, and the former tobacco programme manager at the Department of Health now on secondment with the World Health Organisation in Geneva, questions must be asked about the DH's global ambitions and the cost and relevance to the British taxpayer.


Philip Morris and ASH want government to increase tax on cigarettes

Gotta love Philip Morris.

The world's biggest tobacco company certainly knows how to grab a headline.

Three months ago when Andre Calantzopoulos, PMI's chief executive, announced that he wanted to work with governments to "phase-out" conventional cigarettes it was a huge story and his comments were reported worldwide.

Today the Telegraph reports:

The world’s biggest tobacco company has for the first time asked to be taxed more by Chancellor Philip Hammond – to encourage smokers to switch to healther alternatives.

Philip Morris, which makes brands such as Marlboro, said it backed an increase in taxes on its cigarettes as part of its bid to move to a “smoke-free future”.

According to UK managing director Peter Nixon:

“We want to move towards a smoke-free future and a lot of that is incentivising people to move across from cigarettes to something that is less harmful.”

To avoid any misunderstanding, I don't have a problem with any tobacco company developing 'safer' products that give consumers more choice. Quite the opposite. I welcome it.

I do however have an issue with anyone who supports an increase on what is already punitively high taxation on cigarettes and rolling tobacco because we all know who will bear the brunt of that increase – the consumer.

And let's be clear. When the Chancellor raises the tax on cigarettes by inflation plus two percent or worse (the so-called tobacco escalator) on Wednesday it will have very little impact on PMI whose market share in the UK is less than ten per cent.

The groups that will suffer most are small retailers (who may lose business to the black market) and law-abiding smokers, especially the less well-off, who don't want to quit or switch to alternative nicotine products.

Remarkably I see very little difference between PMI's call for higher taxes on combustible tobacco and ASH's pre-Budget statement that calls on government to increase the tobacco tax escalator from two per cent to five per above inflation.

In contrast, City AM yesterday reported that:

The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association [which represents Imperial, JTI and British American Tobacco] said the government's policy of increasing taxes on tobacco above the rate of inflation each year has already pushed British consumers into the black market, and the group called for the government to scrap the tobacco duty escalator.

Or, to put it another way:

The TMA is urging the government to adopt a “more effective tax policy”, starting with the removal of the excise duty escalator, in which the tax on tobacco products rises by 2% above inflation every year.

TMA director general Giles Roca said: “Tobacco taxation in the UK is the highest in Europe thanks to successive government’s raising tax notably with an-above-inflation escalator, meaning that on some of the lowest-priced cigarettes, tax can account for 90% of price.

“This simply encourages people to buy from the black market and takes business away from the legitimate trade,” he says. “The government therefore needs to review its approach to tobacco taxation, starting with ditching the failing escalator and it could usefully do this at the upcoming Budget.”

See Trade urges government to re-think tobacco tax policy (Talking Retail).

Clearly the message didn't reach PMI or, if it did, they ignored it.

So here's an idea. Prior to the autumn Budget perhaps Philip Morris and ASH should consider a joint submission to the Chancellor.

That way smokers will know exactly where they stand, and who their friends are.


Groupthink and the bully state

It was Ranald MacDonald, MD of Boisdale Restaurants, who coined the phrase 'the bully state' in relation to lifestyle freedoms.

I remember the moment. It was shortly after breakfast, in September 2006. Ranald, Claire Fox and I were sitting outside our hotel in Bournemouth discussing the events of the previous night.

'Politics and Prohibition', a drinks reception organised by Forest, had been a huge success, one of the best events we've done, attracting 400 guests to the main ballroom at the Royal Bath Hotel.

It was the last occasion people were allowed to smoke indoors at a party conference event so we wanted to do something special.

Claire was one of the speakers, struggling to make herself heard above the noise. When Ranald took to the stage he immediately lit a large cigar and began his 'speech'.

Within half a minute actors dressed as policemen had pushed their way through the crowd, climbed on stage and 'arrested' him for "inciting people to enjoy themselves".

The rest of the performance (which included a song and dance routine) was a blur but it finished with hundreds of people singing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' as Ranald was led away in handcuffs.

The following morning, as we nursed a variety of hangovers, it felt a bit surreal. Inevitably the subject of the nanny state came up and after a few minutes Ranald declared, "It's not a nanny state, it's a bully state."

Three years later, in an attempt to embed the term in the public mind, we published a book – by former Forest spokesman Brian Monteith – about the mounting attacks on individual freedoms and called it The Bully State.

Today, as next week's Budget will demonstrate, the bully state is alive and well, although tobacco duty is only one example of how the state is trying to force smokers to quit.

The policy of increasing taxation is being driven by well paid politicians and tobacco control campaigners whose lack of empathy for those who enjoy smoking and are less well off never ceases to amaze.

However we're not alone in feeling uncomfortable about this ongoing assault on the poor. Even members of the public health community are beginning to express concern.

Lisa McNally is a bubbly and committed public health consultant who has always struck me as a fundamentally decent and engaging person. On Wednesday however she made a BIG mistake. She upset ASH.

Describing the thrust of ASH's latest briefing document – 'Ditch or Switch: Give Yourself a Pay Rise!' – as 'insensitive', she tweeted, 'I'm worried this message lacks empathy with the severe deprivation that so many ppl are experiencing.'

'Public Health,' she added, 'must not be about the affluent telling the poor how to improve their lot.'

According to a further tweet this led to an 'angry call' from Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, who allegedly told McNally her comment was 'unhelpful'.

We'll never know exactly what was said between the two, or the tone, but following Arnott's call McNally tweeted that she felt 'a bit' intimidated.

And that's the problem with tobacco control. If you don't embrace their groupthink philosophy you get told off or worse.

But the tweets I found even more interesting were posted by Tom Pruen, chief scientific officer for the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association (ECITA).

Responding to McNally's 'angry call' tweet, vaping advocate Pruen wrote, 'I suggest doing this through a medium other than twitter. Baiting the powerful is only fun when its BT.'

Translation: it's OK to bait the tobacco industry but not tobacco control, especially Deborah Arnott and ASH.

When McNally replied that she was 'not having fun ... I am fairly furious! I won't stay quiet ...' Pruen warned:

'Fair enough. It's obvious that you're right, but rocking the boat still has its risks.'

Translation: don't upset tobacco control – it won't end well!

A tweet or two later he added, 'It's certainly the case that making enemies more powerful than you is rarely career enhancing' to which McNally replied, 'Are you saying that criticising ASH may harm my career?'

Here are some of those tweets in full. You couldn't make them up.

H/T to Fergus Mason for bringing them to my attention.


Enemies of choice

"Off to Canberra today to help make smoking obsolete!" Attila Danko, President, New Nicotine Alliance Australia, February 14, 2017

2016 concluded with an excellent article by harm reduction expert Carl Phillips on his blog Anti-THR Lies and Related Topics.

The title, 'The year tobacco control officially came to own e-cigarettes', says it all but I urge you to read it and draw your own conclusions.

Not only does it reflect many of my own views, it confirms (intentionally or not) my belief that vaping advocates are increasingly pawns in the long march towards a nicotine-free world.

Worse, some aren't pawns at all. They are enthusiastic soldiers in the war on tobacco who are more than happy to throw smokers under the bus if it suits their agenda.

I don't know if Carl shares that view but, like me, he's been an interested and occasionally quizzical observer as vapers and their representative bodies have climbed into bed with tobacco control in the hope that e-cigarettes will be excluded from the regulation tsunami that awaits any product that is associated, even tenuously, with smoking.

Sadly the people who should have read 'The year tobacco control officially came to own e-cigarettes' almost certainly didn't because it's not what they want to hear.

In fact, not only are some vaping activists beginning to mimic many anti-smoking campaigners, it would seem that dancing to the tune of tobacco control is now de rigueur for many vapers who are terrified of alienating their perceived allies in public health.

The reason this is noteworthy is that choice is anathema for most public health campaigners. They claim to know what's best for smokers (and the population generally) and their target is a 'smoke free' society in which smoking has either been prohibited or relegated to the underbelly of society, out of sight and out of mind.

To achieve that they will support or promote almost any policy – smoking bans, punitive taxation, standardised packaging, legally-binding" smoking cessation targets – that 'helps' smokers quit.

Much has been written about the EU's revised Tobacco Products Directive – including the bans on ten packs and smaller pouches of rolling tobacco (the ban on menthol-flavoured tobacco is still to come) – and the primary impact is on choice.

TPD2 is having a similar impact on vapers – who are being denied larger bottles of e-liquids, for example – but the idea that it might have been better to form a broad coalition dedicated to defending and promoting consumer choice rather than harm reduction escaped most vaping advocates.

Instead they hoped that anti-smoking groups like ASH would ride to the rescue, and what happened? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. ASH stood by and let TPD2 go ahead complete with restrictions on nicotine concentrations and reduced volumes for cartridges, tanks and nicotine liquid containers.

Plain packaging can also be expected to reduce choice. Some brands may disappear completely and the chances of new brands appearing must be slim to say the least.

But who cares? The mindset of tobacco control is that the only smokers who matter are those who want to quit. If you enjoy smoking and don't want to stop you're effectively invisible.

Your views are considered worthless – hence the refusal of anyone in public health to comment on 'The Pleasure of Smoking' report, a silence shared by almost every vaping advocate (with the exception of Dick Puddlecote), even though it contains some interesting insights about the attitudes of confirmed smokers to e-cigarettes that are both positive and negative.

As Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research, put it last week:

“It's the predominant view of smoking that the health consequences of it are so catastrophic that why on earth would one continue to do it, therefore what’s the point of even asking anyone who is doing it why they’re doing it, because they’re so irrational that they’re not going to tell you anything that approximates to rational thought.”

Sadly it's not just governments, public health campaigners and the World Health Organisation whose goal is a 'smoke-free' society and the eradication of choice for those who enjoy smoking.

Some vaping activists are equally committed to a Utopian smoke-free future in which two billion smokers switch to e-cigarettes. A billion lives will be saved and we'll all live happily ever after.

Two weeks ago Dr Attila Danko, president of the New Nicotine Alliance Australia, posted the following comment on Facebook:

"Off to Canberra today to help make smoking obsolete!"

Let me repeat that. A leading pro-vaping advocate declared that he was going to "help make smoking obsolete".

Far from being a throwaway line on social media, Danko repeated the sentiment in an article published two days later on the Nicotine Science and Policy Network website which has close links with some of the leading vaping advocates in the UK.

Headlined 'Momentum building to legalise nicotine for vaping in Australia', he wrote:

The idea of tobacco harm reduction and the huge public health benefits of making smoking obsolete are gaining traction. We have politicians now who are committed to pushing this forward and increasing numbers that are supportive.

To put this in perspective, Attila Danko enjoys an almost heroic status among some vapers. Two years ago at the Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw he gave a speech that was so passionate (or messianic, depending on your point of view) he received a standing ovation and ecstatic applause.

To be fair to him, he has been fighting a very difficult battle in a country that is far more hostile to vaping than the UK. It's understandable therefore that his emotions sometimes get the better of him.

Nevertheless I have a serious question and it's this. Does his crusade "to help make smoking obsolete" represent the New Nicotine Alliance worldwide or is it simply the war cry of an excitable campaigner carried away by the thrill of the moment?

I ask because those who 'liked' Danko's comment on Facebook included a trustee and two associates of the New Nicotine Alliance UK, plus Martin Dockrell, an anti-tobacco campaigner formerly employed by ASH who now works for Public Health England.

Whilst I admire and respect a lot of the work the NNA has done, I couldn't help feeling a bit nauseous when I read Danko's comment because it's hard to swallow if you believe that freedom of choice should apply to all consumers, including those who enjoy smoking tobacco and don't want to quit.

The NNA's refusal, when given the opportunity, to condemn hospital smoking bans – which is one of the cruellest examples of the genre because it targets the weak, the elderly and the infirm – is pretty sickening too.

Their policy of refusing to comment on smoking-related issues may be understandable and politically expedient now, but have they never heard of the slippery slope? Apparently not. Then again, check out their trustees and associates and see how many have links with tobacco control and public health.

What is becoming clear is that relatively few advocates of vaping are genuine champions of choice (as I know it) and those that are are slowly being sidelined in favour of activists like Attila Danko who wants to "help make smoking obsolete".

Last week in London Forest hosted a talk by Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow and lead author of 'The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers'.

A few months ago Neil told me he had been criticised for conducting the study which was funded – very transparently – by Forest. I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me, a little, was that vapers were prominent among the dissenting voices.

Neil was told he would "lose credibility" if he worked with Forest. Affable man that he is, he replied that he had "no credibility to lose"!

I kept the information to myself but Neil mentioned it again at last week's event so I guess he's happy for it to be public knowledge. According to Dick Puddlecote:

I learned that he had received condemnation about embarking on [the report] from academics - which you'd expect, of course - but also from some vapers, which was disappointing. He was refreshingly unfazed, though, saying that the people criticising were "unimportant" and that if he was receiving criticism he felt that he was doing a good job.

As it happens the balloon debate that followed Neil's talk featured advocates for six nicotine 'devices' – pipe, cigar, cigarette, snus, heated tobacco and e-cigarette.

The subject of this light-hearted event was 'The Most Pleasurable Nicotine Delivery Device in the World' and the winner – surprise, surprise – was the cigarette.

Frankly, I didn't care which product won. The point was, all these products are pleasurable to someone. Some have mass appeal, others are more niche, but consumer choice is paramount.

I don't care if you smoke, vape, use snus or don't consume any nicotine product. That's your decision and I'll defend your freedom to choose all day long.

Unfortunately it's clear that many advocates of vaping, like tobacco control, support choice but only on terms that will benefit one group of consumers while discriminating against another.

Finally, let me demonstrate how the tobacco control industry is actively embracing e-cigarettes in its quest to force smokers to quit.

On Monday I was on BBC Three Counties radio discussing Public Health England's plan for a "tobacco free NHS". Also on the programme was Amanda Sandford of ASH.

In response to my argument that smoking is a comfort to many people, especially in a stressful environment like a hospital, Amanda argued that people didn't have to smoke because alternative nicotine products, including e-cigarettes and NRT, are available in hospitals.

Adopting the usual tobacco control mindset, she clearly hadn't read 'The Pleasure of Smoking' report. If she had she would have known there are many reasons why committed smokers – even those that have tried vaping – don't want to switch to e-cigarettes or any other nicotine device.

The reasons are stated very clearly in the report so I won't repeat them here. The point is, those perfectly legitimate reasons are being ignored not only by the likes of ASH but also by vapers, one of whom tweeted yesterday:

Yes, I always enjoy a cigarette in the hansom cab on my way to the magic lantern show. #WeHaveBetterTechNow

This was in response to my previous post (Why cigarettes are the real deal), a light-hearted summary of last week's balloon debate, but it sums up the attitude of some vapers.

In their opinion vaping is the future, smoking is the past – and some, like Attila Danko, want to make it history.

Having actually studied the views of confirmed smokers, Neil McKeganey takes a rather different view. "It's hard to imagine a time when there will be nobody smoking," he said last week.

And I agree with him. Yes, vaping is the future, but smoking is the future too.

Thanks to population growth worldwide there are more people smoking today than ever before in human history.

Even in the West, where smoking rates are in long-term decline, millions of adults continue to smoke because many of them enjoy it and they're not going to stop just because tobacco control campaigners and born again vapers dismiss their habit or make sneering comments about the product they consume.

As the name Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco suggests, Forest's primary purpose is to defend the interests of those who enjoy smoking tobacco. In practice however we try not to discriminate between different tobacco/nicotine products or consumers.

Whenever we're asked to defend the consumption of e-cigarettes, or criticise unnecessary or punitive regulations designed to restrict both their sale or use, we speak out.

Unfortunately tobacco control and some vaping advocates are increasingly singing from the same prohibitionist hymn sheet. There are exceptions, of course, and I would give an honourable mention to Judy Gibson, who runs the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations.

Judy was a contestant in our balloon debate and was a spirited advocate of e-cigarettes. Off stage she emphasised she supports freedom of choice for all and I didn't doubt her for a minute. I do question some aspects of the INNCO's agenda – which I will write about another time – but I suspect they are beyond her control. Kudos though to Judy for engaging with us last week and giving as good as she got.

Another honourable mention goes to Andrew Allison, who runs the Freedom Association's Freedom to Vape campaign. I've had my differences with the campaign (see Pro-vaping campaign leaves me speechless) but Andrew's review of last week's event (Fun in the Pleasure Zone), and the fact that he took the trouble to attend, suggests we're probably closer in outlook than I thought.

I stand by my earlier post but it was nevertheless encouraging to read:

The purpose of the evening was, as Simon Clark said, not to tell people what device they should use, if indeed they want to use any. It was about freedom to choose.

Indeed it was, which is why the absence of so many vaping advocates who might have been expected to be there spoke volumes.

Together with a handful of other vaping activists, Andrew and Judy strike me as genuine supporters of choice but they need to have a word with campaigners whose goal is "to help make smoking obsolete" because that, as we know, is the antithesis of choice.

Defend and promote choice for all consumers, including smokers, and you have a clear, distinct message. Pick and choose in the name of harm reduction and you're playing with fire (no pun intended).

Carl Phillips touched on this when he queried the benefit of the claim that e-cigarettes are "95 per cent less harmful than cigarettes". The gist of what Carl was saying, I think, is that if we believe everything tobacco control says about smoking, a product that is "95 per cent less harmful" than combustible cigarettes still represents a risk.

Put it like this. Even if you believe the worst estimates of deaths allegedly caused by 'passive' smoking, and the worst estimates of deaths caused by primary smoking, environmental tobacco smoke represents a relatively small risk in comparison. Despite that the alleged risks of 'passive' smoking have been used again and again to justify one of the most illiberal post Millennium laws we've seen in this country.

The battle cannot therefore be focussed on harm reduction alone. The heart and soul of this debate must be about choice and personal responsibility and if you're ambivalent about either concept the only logical step is to adopt the precautionary principle and support significant restrictions on the sale and consumption of any recreational product that is potentially harmful or addictive.

Turn your back on those who enjoy smoking and don't want to quit and you're no better than the tobacco control campaigners who seek to denormalise millions of consumers, or the politicians who implement – with very little evidence or debate – their increasingly restrictive ideas.

You are, in short, an enemy of choice.

In contrast, to demonstrate Forest's unambiguous support for choice, here's the press release we issued to the media in Ireland – where it's National No Smoking Day – earlier today.

Key to smoking cessation is education not coercion say campaigners

The smokers' group Forest Ireland has welcomed a call by Vape Business Ireland for the Department of Health and the HSE to publish information about vaping as an alternative to smoking on the website.

Speaking on National No Smoking Day (1st March), Forest Ireland spokesman John Mallon said tobacco control policies should focus on education not coercion.

He said: "Smokers must be given as much information as possible about alternative nicotine products, including e-cigarettes.

"Vaping is popular because it mimics the act of smoking and enables smokers to cut down or quit smoking on their own terms.

"In contrast policies likes plain packaging are a deliberate attempt to denormalise not only the product but also the consumer and that's unacceptable."

He added: "The key to smoking cessation is education not coercion.

"Adults who enjoy smoking and don't want to stop should not be ostracised or demonised for their habit.

"Tobacco is a legal product and a significant minority of the population enjoy smoking and have no intention of giving up.

"Whatever the merits of alternative nicotine products like e-cigarettes, that choice must be respected."

Can you imagine tobacco control or any vaping organisation issuing a similar statement?

No, nor can I.


Why cigarettes are the real deal

As readers know we hosted the first and possibly last Forest Balloon Debate last week.

The subject was 'The Most Pleasurable Nicotine Delivery Device in the World' and our contestants were Andrew Stewart (advocating the pipe), Chris Snowdon (snus), Ranald MacDonald (cigar), Mark Littlewood (heated tobacco), Angela Harbutt (cigarette) and Judy Gibson (e-cigarette).

See the video above or click here to watch it on YouTube.

Ranald, Chris, Mark and Angela are familiar to regular readers of this blog. Andy Stewart has smoked a pipe for 35 years (he began at 17) and is a member of the Pipe Club of London. Judy Gibson, a former smoker who now vapes, is steering coordinator of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations.

Each contestant was given three minutes to speak and those contributions are all featured in the video.

We didn't film the short Q&A that followed or the final round in which the three speakers with the most votes were given a further 60 seconds to plead their case. However as I reported last week the finalists were Chris Snowdon (snus), Ranald MacDonald (cigar) and Angela Harbutt (cigarette).

In the second and final audience vote Angela was a clear winner, attracting more than two-thirds of the vote from an audience of about 60 people.

Give or take a few ad libs (and an unintended but very funny malaprop) here's her winning speech:

Tonight we are arguing for 'The Most Pleasurable Nicotine Device in the World'.

Not the safest, cleanest, funkiest; not the cheapest – the most pleasurable. And on that measure there can surely be only one nicotine device in this race ... the elegant, slim, beautiful cigarette. No wonder several trillion cigarettes are smoked every year.

Let me take this away from nicotine just for a moment. As a driver, if I cared about safety I may make the case for a Volvo. If I was worried about the cleanest car I might choose a Prius.

But when it comes to pure unadulterated pleasure it's my Porsche that wins - the sumptuous leather, the thrill of the mid-engine thrum, the raw acceleration power under the pedal.

And when I'm out on the town on a Friday night, or even just putting my feet up at home, it's not the zero alcohol beer or the low calorie organic beetroot juice that gets my pulse racing. It's the pure effervescent joy of champagne that makes my heart sing.

And so with nicotine. I have tried all of the devices competing for your affection tonight - the safer alternatives on one side, and the niche products on the other.

Each has its merits and ultimately it's personal choice that should be king. But as we are in a balloon debate let me tell you why, for me, the cigarette is the real deal.

The snick of the lighter, the touch of the soft yielding filter on your lips, the crackle of the first inhale, the taste of the tobacco on your tongue and, joy of all joys, the immediate kick of the nicotine to the brain.

These are pleasures the imitators have yet to replicate. I'm sure they will one day but until they do please vote for the cigarette this evening.

Andrew Allison, who runs The Freedom Association's Freedom to Vape campaign, had his own take on why Angela (and combustible cigarettes) won:

In the end, cigarettes won. I suppose this was always going to happen at a Forest event, although cigars came a close second. However, the case for cigarettes was helped enormously by Angela Harbutt who gave the most seductive pitch you could ever want to hear that left most of the non-smokers in the audience wanting to light up!

See Fun in the Pleasure Zone (Freedom to Vape).

PS. I know I've spoiled the suspense by revealing the winner but do watch the video. It's very entertaining.

Update: Dick Puddlecote has posted a review of the balloon debate here. Worth reading, especially if you don't have time to watch the video.

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