Entries by Simon Clark (1991)

Monday
Jun262017

Devastating impact of the smoking ban on pubs laid bare

It's the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban on Saturday.

This morning Forest published a new report, Road To Ruin? The impact of the smoking ban on pubs and personal choice.

You can read the full press release on the Forest website but here's a taste:

The smoking ban decimated England’s pubs and hurt local communities, according to a report published today.

New figures obtained by the smokers’ group Forest show there are 11,383 fewer pubs in England compared to 2006, a decline of 20.7 per cent since the smoking ban was introduced on 1st July 2007.

London alone has 2,034 fewer pubs than in 2006, North West England has lost 1,788, Yorkshire is down by 1,589 and the South East has a net loss of 1,013.

But the biggest decline in pub numbers has been in the Midlands where there are 2,560 fewer pubs than before the smoking ban, a drop of 23.7 per cent.

While the fall in the number of pubs is part of a long-term trend and is not solely down to the smoking ban, the report found there was a clear acceleration in pub closures after the ban was enforced, with pubs in poorer urban areas suffering most.

Road To Ruin? was written by Rob Lyons, former deputy editor of the online magazine Spiked. The figures on pub closures were obtained (at great expense!) from research specialists CGA Strategy who are a well respected name in the hospitality industry.

They represent net losses so the number of pub closures will actually be higher because new pubs have opened since 2007 but they are mostly the type of family-friendly establishments championed by the likes of Wetherspoon.

In addition the figures don't reflect the number of pubs that have adapted to the smoking ban by becoming pub restaurants. There are several in my area (and very nice they are too) but to call them pubs, in the traditional sense, is nonsense.

Truth is, the old style boozer is dying out fast. I've no problem with things evolving according to customer demand but the smoking ban had a brutal impact on many pubs, forcing those that were already struggling out of business.

Hardest hit were the urban, inner city pubs, many of which had no outdoor space so smokers were forced to stand outside on the street. A substantial number went out and never came back. Or, if they did, they stopped visiting their 'local' every day.

The Morning Advertiser, which covers the pub trade, published an interesting feature last week. The headline is indicative of where its sympathies now lie (A breath of fresh air: how the smoking ban has changed the pub trade) but at least it acknowledged the fall in numbers of what it calls the "pint-drinking, cigarette-smoking, male regular".

Beyond that however it's clear the trade has turned its back on its traditional customer base in favour of something very different – families with children, for example, hence the focus on food.

Again, I understand the need to evolve but I do think the pub trade is its own worst enemy. When we launched our campaign against the smoking ban in 2004 ('Fight The Ban: Fight For Choice') the support we got from the hospitality industry was laughably inadequate and although most trade bodies said they were opposed to a ban they weren't inclined to stick their hands in their pockets.

By failing to fight for separate smoking rooms and doing nothing to support our subsequent call to relax the regulations so pubs can provide more sheltered outdoor smoking areas, the industry gives the impression of not giving a damn about customers who want to smoke and drink.

There are exceptions of course and some publicans have gone to considerable lengths to accommodate smokers in greater comfort. Only last week, at the Forest boat party, I was shown a picture (by a publican) of a fantastic outdoor smoking 'room' he had erected in the garden of his rural country pub.

It looked magnificent but there aren't enough facilities like that. Worse, as soon as the sun comes out, anti-smokers who happily sit indoors most of the year wander out and demand that the outdoor area belongs exclusively to them too.

I'll post extracts from the report when I get a chance. In the meantime click here if you want to read the whole thing.

See: Cigarette ban killing off British pubs: 11,000 lost in 10 years (Daily Star).

Sunday
Jun252017

Revolt in Style: Forest at The Savoy

Bookings have now closed for the Forest Freedom Dinner at Boisdale of Canary Wharf on Tuesday.

We have 160 guests including MPs, parliamentary researchers, journalists and supporters.

Think tanks and trade associations will be represented. We also have guests flying in from America, Lisbon and Brussels.

Last year's speaker, Rod Liddle, proved so popular we've invited him back and this time we'll film him properly!

I'll post a report after the event.

In the meantime tomorrow sees the publication of a new Forest report concerning the impact of the smoking ban on Britain's pubs.

Next Saturday (July 1) marks the tenth anniversary of the ban in England. We have new figures that show the net loss of pubs in England in the intervening decade, broken down into regions (London, Midlands, North West, North East etc).

I'll post details, with a link to the report, tomorrow.

As it happens it was on June 25, 2007, six days before the ban was enforced, that we hosted our very first Freedom Dinner.

The full title of that event was Revolt In Style: A Freedom Dinner. It was a nod to a track on Sound-On-Sound, the 1979 album by Bill Nelson's Red Noise that, lyrically at least, featured several allusions to George Orwell's '1984'.

'Revolt Into Style' was released as a single on blue vinyl. The previous single, 'Furniture Music', was released on red vinyl. I still have them somewhere.

Given the venue, the magnificent ballroom at The Savoy Hotel in London, and the nature of the event, which was promoted as a "last opportunity to eat, drink and smoke in an enclosed public place", Revolt In Style seemed an appropriate name.

In 2007 I had known Ranald Macdonald, MD of Boisdale Restaurants, for less than a year. We approached him about organising a dinner to mark the smoking ban because we wanted to do something on a reasonably grand scale and given the price I thought we'd have to charge I didn't think we'd get very many people if Forest tried to do it alone.

Ranald was happy to help. Initially however he wanted to host the event at Boisdale of Belgravia which has a capacity of 90 covers. It's also a rather strange shape with lots of nooks and crannies that don't lend themselves to the sort of event I had in mind. I thought we could go bigger.

What I wanted was an event in a larger venue with a proper stage. (Boisdale of Canary Wharf, which has a stage and can accommodate up to 200 diners, didn't open until 2011.)

So we approached The Savoy, organised a meeting with the events department and booked the ballroom for Monday June 25, 2007.

The only problem was, we had less than a month to organise and promote it and our target was 200 guests with tickets priced at £99 each.

Thankfully tickets sold remarkably quickly. Within ten days we'd reached our target of 200 and tickets were still selling.

We eventually sold well over 300 and including comps to MPs, journalists and special guests, a grand total of 390 people attended the event, just short of the ballroom's 400 capacity.

Some, like Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, and Rod Liddle, will be with us on Tuesday.

Claire was one of three speakers in 2007. The others were TV chef and Forest patron Antony Worrall Thompson, and Andrew Neil, our principal speaker.

Antony was great, Andrew was a revelation. But he wasn't our first choice. That was Boris Johnson.

We contacted one of the agencies that handled Boris's public speaking engagements. Curiously, when quoting his standard price, they issued a gentle warning.

Their client, they said, had a habit of turning up shortly before he was due to speak (ie missing dinner) and leaving very soon after. For this (and a 20-minute speech) we would be charged £10,000.

As it happens we subsequently received word that Boris couldn't do the dinner because Monday was the one evening he apparently kept free so he could more spend time with his family. Or so they said.

In hindsight I think we had a lucky escape. In contrast to Boris Andrew Neil arrived at 7.00 for the pre-dinner drinks. Within minutes he was chatting with other guests.

The only person I've seen work a room so well was Margaret Thatcher – and that was at The Savoy too.

Maggie and Denis arrived together and the policy seemed to be, she would do one side of the room while Denis did the other. If you were a guest you were almost certain to speak to one of them. It was hugely impressive.

Andrew Neil not only turned up well before dinner, he stayed long after too. (He left after 11.00, I think.)

He also gave a brilliant speech despite having warned us in advance that he couldn't be political because of his BBC contract.

In the event it was one of best 'libertarian' speeches I have ever heard and he got a standing ovation.

Revolt In Style also featured live music by the Boisdale Blue Rhythm Band who sat on stage looking extremely swanky.

A few months earlier they had recorded a special CD for Forest. It was called 'You Can't Do That!' (after the Lennon-McCartney song) and subtitled 'Songs for Swinging Smokers'.

It featured 19 songs including 'Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette', 'Giving Up Giving Up', and 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes'.

To mark the smoking ban it also featured 'I'm Going Outside', a new song with lyrics by playwright Alan Plater.

Plater, who was one of Britain's most successful dramatists, described the Labour government’s anti-smoking crusade as "hypocritical", "puritannical" and "sanctimonious".

He wrote the lyrics after he and his wife found themselves standing outside every time they wanted to light up on a trip to Orkney where a smoking ban been introduced (along with the rest of Scotland) in March 2006.

"I’m 71, it’s minus four degrees, and I’m going outside!" he told me.

Plater and his wife Shirley Rubinstein were among our special guests at The Savoy and I think they were genuinely touched when 'I'm Going Outside' received its first live performance.

Sadly Alan died of cancer, aged 75, exactly three years later. His death was reported on June 25, 2010.

The current Freedom Dinner was launched in 2011. It's never achieved the scale of the dinner that inspired it because that was a one-off event that heralded a well-publicised milestone in British history, the introduction of a national public smoking ban.

In 2007 we had film crews from twelve countries including Russia, Greece, Hungary, France, Germany and the UK and I think many guests saw it as a genuinely historic occasion that might never be repeated in the UK.

But the 'success' of Revolt In Style was bittersweet because it marked the introduction of a policy we had fought, with relatively little support, for several years.

Today, ten years on, it remains to be seen who is still opposed to the smoking ban. We know (because polls tell us) that opposition to separate smoking rooms in pubs and clubs is outweighed by those who support the idea.

But what about the pub industry not to mention politicians and groups who purport to support a socially 'liberal' society?

People and organisations are judged on words and deeds so it will be interesting to see who has the guts or inclination to speak out on the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban.

Politically there may be more important issues. Culturally and economically however the smoking ban had a devastating impact on many pubs and individuals that continues today.

I don't doubt that many people have adapted to the smoking ban but that doesn't make it right.

It's important therefore that those who believe the ban to be wrong continue to speak out. If we don't it will be extended to other 'public' areas including beer gardens and al fresco drinking and dining areas.

Silence shouldn't be an option but it seems some people can't be arsed to fight anymore.

More fool them.

See:
Smokers in last-gasp stand on ban (BBC News, June 24, 2007)
Huffing and puffing: Adam Edwards joins a pack of rebellious smokers and pipemen for a last-gasp celebration of tobacco at the Savoy (Daily Telegraph, June 27, 2007)

PS. I had completely forgotten, until I saw these pictures a few minutes ago, that we had also hired some actors to play the role of 'smoke police' at The Savoy.

Goodness, what else have I forgotten about that night?!

Thursday
Jun222017

"Magical evening" on the Thames

Thanks to everyone who attended Smoke On The Water, our annual boat party, on Tuesday night.

The weather was a great improvement on last year when we shivered under wet, grey skies.

Ironically the heat may have persuaded some people to stay away. One prospective guest emailed to say he was remaining "in the country" because it was "too hot" in London.

On the water however there was a nice breeze so conditions were perfect.

Those who did come included many familiar faces but each year we seem to attract new ones.

Inevitably someone on social media questions the purpose of the party. This year, in response to the person who enquired, via Twitter, "What was the point?", I wrote:

"No point, apart from engaging with supporters, potential supporters, parliamentary researchers and the Westminster village."

Smoke On The Water, like The Freedom Dinner, helps maintain Forest's profile in Westminster.

Many of the guests are political researchers working for MPs. Others work for Westminster think tanks.

Events such as this also help us maintain a core base of supporters who can be called upon at short notice, something we've found very useful in the past.

Interestingly, many of the people who attend Smoke On The Water are not only young (twenties and thirties), they're mostly non-smokers.

The point is, they may not smoke but they're still willing to support/engage with us. Moving forward, that's important.

Anyway, here are some of the comments we're received about this year's event:

"Great evening, as always."

"Thank you for another magical evening."

"Gorgeous evening to cruise down the Thames."

"One of the best nights of the year, by far!"

"Thank you for organising such a great party. Everyone had a fantastic time."

Some excellent photos were posted on social media by several guests including Steven George-Hilley, Sarah-Jane Sewell and Elise Rasmussen.

If you're on Facebook you can see some of them there.

Next week: The Freedom Dinner at Boisdale of Canary Wharf.

Photo above courtesy Steven George-Hilley. The picture of Tower Bridge at dusk (bottom) was taken by Elise Rasmussen. The one directly below is one I managed to take myself!

Sunday
Jun182017

Serious question: why don't more smokers switch to using e-cigarettes?

Remember The Pleasure of Smoking report, published at the end of last year?

Co-authored by Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow, and funded by Forest, it was based on a survey of 650 'confirmed smokers'.

The study found that 95 per cent of confirmed smokers smoke because they take pleasure from the habit. Over 70 per cent had no plans to quit any time soon.

The researchers also asked respondents about e-cigarettes and got some interesting and detailed responses.

That research has now been published in a peer reviewed paper published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Entitled Why Don’t More Smokers Switch to Using E-Cigarettes: The Views of Confirmed Smokers, it's summarised as follows:

Whilst e-cigarettes have been characterised by Public Health England as being around 95% less harmful than combustible tobacco products, only a minority of current smokers (around 16% within the UK) are using these devices.

In this paper we report the results of an online survey of 650 smokers in contact with a smokers’ rights group in the UK. A total of 91% of the smokers surveyed were smoking on a daily basis. Fifty nine percent reported having used electronic nicotine delivery systems, the majority of whom reported having used e-cigarettes.

Those smokers that had not used these devices principally explained this in terms of the pleasure they derived from smoking. The features smokers liked most about e-cigarettes had to do with the range of settings in which they could be used, the lack of an offensive smell associated with their use, the available flavours and the reduced level of harm.

The elements which smokers liked least about e-cigarettes had to do with the vaping experience, the technology, the chemical nature of e-liquids and the complex technology that was associated with these devices.

If a greater number of smokers are to be encouraged to take up e-cigarettes, it will be necessary not only to convey accurate information on the relative harm of these devices (compared to combustible tobacco products), but to ensure that they are able to be used in a wider range of settings than those within which smoking can currently occur and that the vaping experience more closely resembles the smoking experience.

Aside from the fact that this is the first time, to my knowledge, that Forest has ever been associated with a peer reviewed paper in any publication let alone a leading international journal, I'm delighted the CSUR's research has been recognised in this way.

It's an important piece of work because it's a rare example of the views of committed smokers being listened to and taken seriously.

Smokers are, by and large, dismissed as addicts with little or no willpower over their own behaviour. What the research found is that while 56 per cent of respondants accepted they're addicted to smoking, very few were concerned because they enjoy their habit and don't want to quit.

In other words, far from considering themselves to be unwilling slaves to the evil weed, they happily embrace their addiction.

At the same time, the research found that a substantial minority of confirmed smokers did NOT believe they were addicted.

None of these responses is something the tobacco control industry wants to hear, hence few public health campaigners were willing to acknowledge the existence of the original report.

Using the same research, Neil McKeganey's peer reviewed paper asks an important question: why don't more smokers switch to vaping?

The pleasure many confirmed smokers get from smoking is a major factor but so too is their experience of vaping.

Fifty-nine per cent of those who responded to the CSUR questionnaire provided feedback on their use of reduced risk nicotine products. Interestingly, given that we're talking about smokers who by and large don't want to quit, almost all of this group reported they had used e-cigarettes.

The paper, like the original report, highlights what they liked or disliked about e-cigarettes. It's quite illuminating and should be essential reading for tobacco control campaigners and anyone interested in tobacco harm reduction.

Over the next few days I'll watch with interest to see how many of the leading THR advocates review or tweet a link to Neil McKeganey's paper.

I'm guessing they won't because they're far too busy slapping themselves on the back about the latest ONS figures that show that the smoking rate in the UK has fallen below 16 per cent, a drop they associate almost entirely with the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes.

Inevitably it's a bit more complicated than that. Personally I think the significant reduction in smoking rates since 2012 is due to a combination of factors. Vaping is undoubtedly one of them; so too is the increasingly prohibitive cost of tobacco (which has the knock-on effect of driving some smokers to the black market).

What no-one seems to be addressing is the fact that the sharp rise in the use of e-cigarettes is said to have peaked. If that's true research such as Neil McKeganey's excellent paper is even more important because it offers a valuable insight into why more smokers aren't switching to vaping.

Unfortunately I fear many tobacco harm reduction advocates are living in a bubble, preferring to listen only to those who have quit smoking or switched exclusively to vaping.

A case in point is the Global Forum on Nicotine that concluded in Warsaw yesterday. The organisers were aware of The Pleasure of Smoking report but did they invite Neil or his co-author to address the conference? Did they heck.

To the best of my knowledge there wasn't a single presentation by anyone representing smokers who don't wish to quit or switch to e-cigarettes. Why? Surely, if vaping is to overtake and ultimately replace smoking, the views of confirmed smokers must not only be sought out and acknowledged, they must be acted upon, not sidelined or ignored because some people find them unpalatable or off message.

Yes, consumers were well represented at GFN but they were overwhelmingly (or exclusively) ex-smokers and vaping advocates, not current or confirmed smokers, so the plethora of speakers, most of them from the public health or THR communities, were preaching mostly to the converted.

Would it have been too much to invite someone to speak on behalf of smokers who don't want to quit or switch?

To read 'Why Don’t More Smokers Switch to Using E-Cigarettes: The Views of Confirmed Smokers' in full click here. To download a pdf, click here.

If you're on social media, please share.

PS. According to one tobacco control campaigner, The Pleasure of Smoking report was lightweight and contrived.

A penny for his thoughts now the same research has been peer reviewed and published in a leading international journal.

Saturday
Jun172017

The waiting game continues for Deborah and Sheila

And so the wait goes on.

Yes, I'm referring to the intolerable delay in honouring Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, and Sheila Duffy, CEO of ASH Scotland.

I first mentioned this extraordinary oversight in December 2013 (New Year's Honours: Arnott and Duffy overlooked again) when I asked:

Why no gongs for the likes of Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH; Sheila Duffy, CEO of ASH Scotland; Fiona Andrews, director of Smokefree South West; or Andrea Crossfield, director of Tobacco Free Futures?

After all, it's titans of Tobacco Control like Deborah and Sheila who are often credited with introducing smoking bans and other measures that have saved tens of thousands of lives. Allegedly.

Surely they should receive recognition for their services to public health?

The following year my prayers were answered when Andrea Crossfield and Fiona Andrew each received an MBE (Was it something I wrote?) but Arnott and Duffy missed out.

Since then I have religiously scoured both the New Year's Honours and the Queen's Birthday Honours but awards for our two heavyweight champions of public health has been noticeably absent.

I hoped the latest Birthday Honours, announced today, might bring long overdue recognition but no. Scandalously Arnott and Duffy have been overlooked, again.

Curiously, while the CEOs of ASH and ASH Scotland have been ignored year after year after year, the CEOs of regional groups such as Smokefree South West, Tobacco Free Futures and Fresh (formerly Smoke Free North East) have been honoured.

More bizarre still, neither Smokefree South West nor Tobacco Free Futures exist anymore, their local council benefactors quite rightly choosing to spend taxpayers' money on something more worthwhile.

Meanwhile Sheila Duffy, who has been CEO of ASH Scotland since 2007, continues her relentless pursuit of a smoke free society in the frustrating knowledge that her predecessor Maureen Moore was at least awarded an OBE.

As for my old friend Deborah Arnott, the wait for that elusive gong goes on. The good news is, there's always another Honours list.

Fingers crossed!

Thursday
Jun152017

GFN: I would if I could but I can't

Sadly I can't make the Global Forum on Nicotine that began in Warsaw today.

I had prior commitments including our Burning Issues dinner in Dublin (see previous post) so I had to decline the invitation.

Sent by one of the co-founders of this annual event, now in its fourth year, it read:

I think that you write and tweet a lot of inaccurate stuff about GFN and think it might be refreshing for you to come to the conference and to make a judgment on what we do based on first-hand experience, rather than what you discern from our website.

You would be very welcome and I think that you will find experience interesting. We are the only event that brings together a wide range of stakeholders who otherwise might never meet each other.

I'm not sure that's strictly true (a lot of conferences including the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum can make exactly the same claim) but here's my response, slightly abbreviated:

Dear

Thanks for the invitation!

I have considered going to GFN in the past and would consider going this year. However June is a very busy month for us and I am in Ireland that week.

If I can't make it I would however be happy to meet you for coffee sometime so we can have a chat and you can tell me where I'm going wrong re GFN. Most of my comments are the result of feedback from people who have attended the conference. Others are prompted by things like last year's ban on vaping in plenary sessions.

I greatly respect the work you do and GFN is obviously a huge success but I do think it's a mistake to 'reward' Poland by returning to Warsaw when vaping has just been banned everywhere that smoking is prohibited.

With regard to vaping generally we are very supportive of harm reduction and I have gone out of my way to engage with vaping bodies, only to be rebuffed.

Our fundamental position however is our support for choice and I think that in their enthusiasm for vaping some advocates forget there are millions of smokers who enjoy smoking and have no wish to quit, despite the health risks.

I also think that some e-cigarette conferences are increasingly dominated by public health speakers with consumers (current smokers and dual users especially) relegated to a very minor role.

Here's something I wrote about the E-Cigarette Summit in 2015. Some of my comments could, I think, be applied to GFN although I see you've invited David O'Reilly [Group Scientific and R&D Director at British American Tobacco] to speak this year so that's a significant step forward.

Last year, through a colleague (who attended GFN in 2015), we offered to provide a speaker for GFN. Nothing ever came of it which is a pity because I think we have something to offer the conference.

This year, for example, I could have talked about The Pleasure of Smoking study that was conducted by Neil McKeganey and funded by Forest. Or you could have invited Neil himself. As you know he is a very engaging speaker. The report has an interesting section about e-cigarettes and why more confirmed smokers aren't switching.

Or I could have talked about consumer engagement with the media. A few months ago some vaping advocates asked for advice and I wrote about it here.

I would love too to see a consumer panel in which four speakers, say, enthuse and possibly argue about the merits of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, heated tobacco and snus. Alternatively you could do something similar to a recent Forest event that featured a light-hearted balloon debate on the subject 'The Best Nicotine Delivery Device in the World'. We had six speakers and it was very entertaining.

Anyway, I would be happy to meet and have a chat so do let me know.

Finally, I'd like to invite you and [your fellow organiser] to attend, as our guests, the annual Freedom Dinner at Boisdale of Canary Wharf on Tuesday 27th June. Note that this is a vaper-friendly event – guests can vape during dinner.

Best wishes,

Simon

I thought that was quite a friendly, constructive response (written and sent within 24 hours of receiving the invitation).

Five weeks later I've heard nothing more so I guess we won't be meeting for coffee nor will they be attending The Freedom Dinner.

Pity. I would have been happy to meet them. I'm sure they would have enjoyed The Freedom Dinner almost as much as I would have enjoyed attending the Global Forum on Nicotine.

Next year, perhaps.

Thursday
Jun152017

Lighting up for liberty

We had a great night in Dublin on Tuesday.

The restaurant was first class.

Guests were an eclectic mix of journalists and the creme de la creme of the libertarian community in Ireland.

Everyone contributed to a roundtable dinner discussion that only occasionally teetered into anarchy.

Speaker Claire Fox treated us to her usual blend of passion, wit and thought-provoking commentary.

But the star of the evening was the smoking terrace where we began and ended the evening.

Starting at 6.30pm with drinks on the terrace, the event was scheduled to finish at 9.30.

Come midnight however not a single guest had left and most of them were camped on the terrace. When I finally left (around 12.45am) I wasn't even the last to go.

Now that's a good event!

Earlier in the day we'd arranged for Claire to do a couple of interviews on the theme of the dinner, 'Is health the new religion?'

Attacking the "joyless puritanism" of public health zealots she even managed to slip in the title of her current book.

"I find that offensive!" she told Newstalk presenter Sean Moncrieff.

Later she was a guest on The Last Word with Matt Cooper (Today FM). 

Anyway it was good to try something a bit different and I think these Burning Issues dinners have a future, not just in Dublin but in other cities too.

So thanks again to everyone who took part. I won't mention names but you know who you are.

Above: Claire Fox with journalist Ian O'Doherty

Tuesday
Jun132017

Dinner in Dublin

Apologies for the lack of posts this past week.

I was stunned, to put it mildly, by the election result (which I didn't see coming), and there seemed little point adding to the cacophony of noise.

As it happens I've drafted a post with the title 'Why I'm warming to Theresa May' but it needs a bit of polishing.

In the meantime I'm in Dublin ahead of a dinner Forest is hosting tonight.

We've invited a dozen or so people, including several journalists and what passes for the libertarian community in Ireland, to a roundtable debate on the subject 'Is health the new religion'.

It should be noted that we also sent invitations to various health correspondents and writers specialising in health and with the exception of one, who subsequently pulled out, none of them were interested in attending. Most didn't even bother replying.

No matter, it should still be a good event. I got the idea for the format from the Institute of Ideas who invited me to a similar event at the Cinnamon Club in London when the guest speaker was our old friend Rod Liddle.

It's no coincidence then that tonight's guest speaker is Claire Fox, director of the IoI.

Claire is another old friend of Forest. I first met her 17 years ago when we were invited to a small soiree hosted by the late Auberon Waugh at the Academy Club in Soho.

It sounds impressive but the location was a small Dickensian room up a ricketty flight of stairs.

Waugh, who was the founder and editor of the Literary Review (which had its office next door), thought that a monthly drinks party would be a small gesture of thanks to his contributors, most of whom weren't paid.

He decided that Forest should 'sponsor' these events (ie pay for the drinks) which I was happy to do if it introduced us to the great and the not so good.

Claire Fox was a guest at the first event. So too was Tom Utley, the Daily Mail columnist who was then writing for the Telegraph. Mary Wakefield, now deputy editor of The Spectator, was there and I'm pretty sure (although I may be imagining it) that writer and journalist Tony Parsons was present too.

It was a warm summer evening and the room was thick with tobacco smoke so the best place to sit was next to the open sash windows overlooking Lexington Street.

By comparison the venue for tonight's dinner is distinctly upmarket. Most important, though, our private dining room has direct access to its own smoking terrace.

The event has already caused a minor stir with the Sunday Times Ireland running the following piece in Sunday's edition:

Forest Ireland, the raspy voice of the smoker, is looking for sympathetic journalists to attend a "special roundtable dinner" at L'Ecrivain, Dublin, next week to discuss "Is health the new religion?"

The lobby group, which claims not to represent the tobacco industry but admits getting most of its funding from fag peddlers like JTI and British American Tobacco, wants hacks attending to agree to the Chatham House rule.

Between competitive bouts of coughing, invitees will hear the views of Claire Fox, a committed smoker who runs a libertarian think tank in London, on the "puritannical evangelism" of the public health lobby.

We were puzzled by the proposed timetable, though, with Fox scheduled to speak for ten minutes between the first and main course. Surely all the guests will be outside having a fag before their mains.

They have a point.

More important, all publicity is good publicity. After it appeared I invited the journalist, news editor Colin Coyle, to tonight's dinner and he replied, graciously:

Thanks Simon but I'll have to pass. I shall be playing my weekly five-a-side football game to help keep the grim reaper at bay. But I may well be deluded. Best of luck tonight.

Can't say fairer than that.

PS. Claire will also be discussing 'Is health the new religion?' on Today FM at 2.30 and Newstalk, Ireland's largest independent national radio station, at 5.30. If you can get online at those times, tune in!