Here's a transcript of my contribution to a BBC Radio Leeds phone-in yesterday.
I've edited it very slightly where the recording was slightly inaudible or the meaning wasn't 100 per cent clear, but it's an accurate record of the conversation.
Presenter Andrew Edwards introduced me following some comments about iQOS, the heat not burn device that was launched in the UK yesterday by Philip Morris (PMI).
Andrew Edwards, presenter, BBC Radio Leeds:
Listening to that is Simon Clark. He is from the pro-smoking group Forest which describes itself as the voice and friend of the smoker and he is on the Big Yorkshire Phone-in. Good afternoon, Simon.
Simon Clark, director, Forest:
Hello, Andrew. Actually pro-choice rather than pro-smoking.
Right pro-choice. Good distinction. Shouldn't we just though ban tobacco altogether rather than saying we have invented this which is less harmful?
Well, no, because prohibition doesn't work. I think everybody knows the example of America where they tried to prohibit alcohol and they had to give up that experiment after 12 years because it was a terrible failure because the people who took over the market were the criminal gangs and the bootleggers.
So from that experience I think the tobacco control lobby has understood that prohibition never works and over the last few decades in the UK, and globally, we've seen an attempt to wean people off tobacco, trying to get them to give up completely, and again that hasn't worked as well as the tobacco control lobby would have liked because, simply, there are millions of people who enjoy smoking.
I think the health message has got across to most people and in many cases that has discouraged people from taking up smoking in the first place. It has also encouraged some people to give up, but many people are prepared to take the risk because they enjoy smoking and because they enjoy it they're not going to give it up until a product comes along that gives them the same pleasure that smoking tobacco does.
Which is where I think today's conversation is an interesting one. We understand other big manufacturers are quite close to releasing similar products to this one here [PMI's iQOS device]. Now as I understand it the difference from an e-cigarette here is that with traditional e-cigarettes the conversion rate to e-cigs of smokers is about 20 per cent, whereas the boss of PMI, who have developed this new one, says shareholders are enthusiastic about the new product as well and part of it is that it gets round the basic weakness of it not being, for a smoker, something that gives them that 'hit'. Do you take that point? Does that seem to make sense to you?
Yes, I mean we are excited by all these emerging products from e-cigarettes to heat-not-burn products. I think it's true that there is a small market of people who have switched to e-cigarettes and they swear by them. They say that these are absolutely marvellous, but it's [also] true that the majority of smokers are not switching,even though the majority of smokers have tried e-cigarettes. The majority aren’t switching because e-cigarettes don't give them, as you say, the hit or the taste they're looking for.
So those people, if they are looking to cut down or quit cigarettes completely, they want something else and what seems to be exciting about heat-not-burn is that they sort of stay true to the concept of consuming tobacco, because of course e-cigarettes shouldn’t even be called a tobacco product because they don't have any tobacco in them. So what the consumer should be offered is a range of products. Now, if you think of combustible cigarettes at one end of the line ...
By that you mean a traditional cigarette, a combustible cigarette?
Yes, that's right, a traditional cigarette where you have to light it and the tobacco is being burnt rather than heated. The thing is, what we need to do is offer the consumer as wide a range of choice as possible, so at one end you've got the traditional cigarette, at the other you've got the e-cigarette, but for a lot of smokers that's quite a big jump from a combustible cigarette to an electronic cigarette.
But aren’t we dancing around the issue that we all understand which is that smoking is very bad for you, it kills an awful lot of people, and we've known that forever, and shouldn’t we just be saying rather, 'Here's something that is less harmful,' we should just be saying, 'Look, let's get rid of it altogether.' And I take your point that you are pro-choice and you think it's a legal product, nobody is denying that. Shouldn’t we though just be saying, for the sake of the health of the generations to come, our children, our children's children, 'Look, let’s just get rid of it.' Like that texter Jonathan said to me, you know, people will look back on it like some of the madnesses, as they now see it, of taking what turned out to be poisonous things to try and cure our ailments.
Well, the problem is there are lots of things in life that are potentially not good for us. Now smoking may come quite high up that bar but drinking too much alcohol, drinking too many sugary drinks, eating too much fatty food and dairy products, there are lots and lots of things that are potentially bad for our health and we can't go around banning all these things.
The exciting thing about these emerging products is that they give control back to the consumer. I mean we have got to put this in perspective. Smoking rates in the UK have fallen dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years and if you go back to the Fifties half of the adult population smoked. Now the figure is about 16 per cent. So that’s been a pretty dramatic drop but of course the really dramatic drop actually happened between the mid Seventies and the early Nineties when there were very few restrictions on smoking and most people absorbed the health messages and they chose either not to start smoking or they decided they're going to quit.
What's happened in the last ten to 15 years is that we got down to a core group of the population who enjoyed smoking and weren’t going to quit and the government, in order to force the smoking rates down to the current level, has had to introduce a raft of very repressive, very restrictive regulations ...
... and things like plain packaging, advertising, and the rest. We will come back, Simon. I'm glad you are here. I am just going to remind people how to give us a call. You are with BBC Radio Leeds. This is Simon Clark from the pro-choice group – 'We are not pro-smoking, we are pro-choice' was his distinction – which describes itself as the voice and the friend of the smoker. He is live on BBC Radio Leeds. This is the Big Yorkshire Phone-in.
I'm Andrew Edwards and we're talking about the product which has been launched today by one of the world's biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris ... and it's been described as a new less harmful cigarette. It's been launched [in the UK] and it is, as you heard Simon mention, a heat-not-burn product. So it heats tobacco but it does use real tobacco and the company claims that [although] it's not been independently scientifically verified smokers get the same nicotine hit but 90 per cent less of the nasty toxins that come with cigarette smoke. They're not pushing that end of the finding. They are just simply saying at the moment that the new product is likely to cause less harm and they are inviting scientists to test it, but I'm asking, 'Aren't we dancing around here? Isn’t the point that we should just ban smoking tobacco altogether?'
Simon, just before I open this up to our callers, I'm interested to see what you make of the chief exec, and you heard a little quotation from him there, André Calantzopoulos, who said that he would like to work with governments towards the phasing out of conventional cigarettes. He said that the company knows its products harm their consumers and that the only correct response is to, quote, “find and commercialise ones that are less harmful”, which is presumably where a product like the one you and I are talking about today fits in?
Yes, I completely understand why Philip Morris are moving in that direction and working with government seems to be a very sensible route to go, but I do think it's a bit of a kick in the teeth for their consumers who enjoy their products, their cigarettes, and I do think a company like Philip Morris should be prepared to defend the rights of its existing consumers a bit more than they appear to do.
I mean, it's marvellous that they are working on these new products because, as I say, we embrace the concept of choice – and the more choice there is for consumers the better – and if that allows people to switch of their own volition to a so-called safer product that has to be a very good thing. But, as I say, I do think to say we are working to essentially get rid of combustible cigarettes, the traditional cigarette, I do think that is a kick in the teeth for consumers who enjoy that product.
But probably it’s a bit like you, Simon, taking issue with me at the beginning where, and I take your point that you described yourself as a pro-choice group rather than a pro-smoking group, but perhaps in this modern era, very heedful of the health messages, knowing about the younger generation, having shareholders, this is obviously a big private company, that they've got to walk that very delicate line between saying 'Yes, we know people like to smoke, we will try and make it as safe as possible' but, you know you can see where I'm coming to. It's a difficult, difficult line while we've got something that is legal, brings in huge tax revenues and yet is a killer.
It is [a difficult line] but one thing we keep saying to legislators, politicians and anti-smoking campaigners is, don't forget that millions of people enjoy smoking tobacco. I mean it's almost taboo these days to actually say that because smokers are routinely talked about as if they have a dirty disgusting habit and are hopelessly addicted to nicotine and all the rest of it.
And yes, there are people who are addicted to nicotine and there are smokers who want to give up, but there are many who don't want to give up because they enjoy it and I think it's up to a tobacco company such as Philip Morris to actually acknowledge that and say 'Look, we are trying to work towards a safer product because there's no doubt a lot of consumers do want that as the endgame, and we want to work with government', and again they're quite right to say that because it's absolute nonsense that government will not sit down and talk to tobacco companies because they quote World Health Organisation regulations saying they're not allowed to talk to tobacco companies. That's completely ridiculous. The companies and governmet have to sit down, with public health, and talk about these issues.
Simon, I am going to leave it there. I am really glad we could talk. I am going to open this up to our callers, texters and tweetters but it's very good to talk to you. Thanks for your time.
Appreciate it. Simon Clark from the pro-choice group Forest, which describes itself as the voice and friend of the smoker.