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What it's like to represent smokers on live radio (and television)

A friend asked me recently what speaking on live radio was really like as he had never done so himself.

Today is a good time to update that conversation as I was guest on Cork96FM yesterday to discuss the simple issue of smuggled tobacco.

The equation here is pretty simple. As a smoker of over 40 years I never remember cheap smuggled tobacco products being available until about ten years ago. Twenty cigarettes cost the exact same as a pint of beer in 1974 and neither were worthy of much comment regarding price.

The anti-tobacco movement though began to wade in and lobbied endlessly for the price of tobacco to be increased. This has gone on relentlessly for ten years now with the result that today the pint costs €3.70 (in my local), and 20 cigarettes cost €10.20 in the nearest shop.

The average price of 20 cigarettes in the EU is approximately €5, being higher in some countries and lower in others. It doesn't take a genius therefore to figure out where the blame for the epidemic of smuggling lies. Those who have campaigned for price increases and those who have listened to them and complied with their wishes, must share the responsibility. It is truly that obvious and simple.

There is no need for any kind of expensive research as the answer is staring us all in the face. If the Government did the same thing to coffee and to the same extent you could be sure the criminal fraternity would source cheap coffee elsewhere and offer it from the boot of a car at half the price. Oddly, though, if the commodity was coffee there would be no confusion over where the buck stopped. Coffee drinkers would feel quite justified buying from the criminals and there would be calls for price realignment with the EU average.

That then was the gist of what I had to say yesterday to the presenter. But it began with the introduction of yours truly and this was phrased in terms suggesting that there was simply no defence of smoking in any shape or form and I could not possibly justify it to the listeners. It's important to remember at this point that the invitation from them was to discuss a report on the extent of tobacco smuggling, not to justify smokers and their habit. So that is point one. When the presenter happens to hate us smokers they will contrive to present us in a bad light before I get a chance to begin. In essence it undermines both you and I and our message.

Then there is the hectoring. In a proposed debate with a fanatical smoke-hater one morning no debate took place. The anti-person was given the microphone first for seven uninterrupted minutes of propaganda with the presenter humming her agreement to each and every point. Then she turned to me, fired seven questions in a continuous burst before sitting back smugly. I dealt with the first of these by making a simple one-sentence point and she was on to me like lightening. "How could you possibly make such an outlandish claim John?" Her voice was confrontational and I got about one more interrupted minute before she cut across me to announce they were going to the news. Oh, and that interview was on live TV. Impartiality is increasingly hard to find.

On a prime time slot on national radio a few years back I was asked the reasonable question, "Why do smokers smoke?" Having spoken to so many smokers about this I replied, "Because they enjoy it." The well-known presenter came back quickly with "Ah here! That's enough of that" and my line went dead. I was silenced at the push of a button for having the nerve to suggest that we liked our cigarettes. The received wisdom, put about by non-smokers, is that we hate them and to suggest otherwise is akin to defending genocide. I don't know what it's like where you live but where I live having a smoke is as normal as having a coffee or a pint.

So what's it like on live radio? Well, it's fine if you are trotting out something PC in a droll voice from a script but if you are on to say something that goes against the prevailing wisdom, even if you are have a right to hold your views, you will be attacked in a most unpleasant way. The methodology is to attack the speaker, not the sentiment expressed. Some smokers complain bitterly about Forest and what we try to do because they claim we are not bullish enough for their liking. But if I said some of the things I have been urged by them to say the smoker's standpoint would never be heard again. Forest would be blacklisted and never invited to add balance to any debate on smoking. That would clear the field for extreme elements on the other side to demand anything they want, including the prohibition of tobacco nationwide.

To give you an idea of just how extreme things currently are, last week in the Dail Billy Kelleher (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail) 
asked the Minister for Health about the "percentage of existing disability residential houses and units that are compliant with the HSE tobacco free campus policy". These are helpless individuals in residential care, which has a long history of treating service users very roughly indeed. It would appear that Billy Kelleher can ignore the inhumane treatment meted out to these people in favour of making sure they can never enjoy a relieving smoke. You and I are paying Billy handsomely and he is using our faith in him to raise such appalling questions during government time.

But if I issued a press release about it and got on radio to complain about Billy's question I would be attacked from all sides. For the Forest Ireland spokesperson that's what it's like to be on live radio.


Creeping prohibition at home and abroad

Aside from Ireland beating the Springboks in rugby and the soccer lads drawing with Sweden in the Euros, it has been a relatively quiet summer for smokers in Ireland.

There is so much money to be made from persecuting honest smokers however that condemnation and lies are always bubbling just under the surface. We have become a soft target, all 800,000+ of us.

Today, for example, under the headline 'Anti-smoking laws contributing to de-normalisation of smoking' the Breaking News website quotes the the Institute of Public Health.

I'll bet you didn't even know there was any such thing as the Institute of Public Health but we have more quangos and double-jobbing here than almost anywhere. Their comments are a glorious example of creeping prohibition.

According to Director of Policy Helen McEvoy, "It is part of a trend to ban smoking from all public places, to reduce the harm caused by second hand smoke." Innocent readers are presuming she is referring to public indoor spaces but in fact this sleight of hand is trying to slip into our heads that secondhand smoke poses a danger outdoors. It is not so much a blatant lie as a misleading untruth. Cigarette smoke in any outdoor setting has never been shown to pose any risk to those around it and that is the scientific fact of the matter. Sneaky, though, isn't it?

Elsewhere the new Minister of State for Health Promotion, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, is interviewed in the Irish Independent. In recent weeks she has hosted meetings with several anti-smoking groups and Forest have written to her asking for an audience too.

We are still holding our breath. But in the great tradition of Irish Health ministers Marcella is, ahem, a bit portly. In the Irish Independent interview she freely admits she is obese and if I do get the chance to meet her I intend to freely admit I am a smoker.

The tone of the interview is light-hearted but what interested me was that when she was diagnosed as obese "She wants to take a sensible approach to getting more of us off the couch by setting realistic goals and making it easier for people to be active and aware of healthy food choices."

What is this cult of interfering in other people's lives because you are fighting issues of your own? I find this most prevalent among ex-smokers as well. I know a couple of seriously obese lads near me who are happy and cheerful and couldn't give a hoot about their weight. Tackle your own problems, Marcella, and let other people decide for themselves what they want to do, and I include smoking and drinking in that also.

Meanwhile, on the international front that giant quango known as the World Health Organisation is demonstrating just how divorced from reality it has become. As reported by Robert Fisk in the UK Independent, 'The UN has failed to protect Syrians from war and hunger. Now it’s telling them to stop smoking'.

That blighted people are subject to bombings, rape, murder, arbitrary drone strikes, family deaths and torture even as their country disintegrates around them. Their daily plight is a blot on the rest of us. And while ISIS is actively flogging and burning any smokers they find the ridiculous WHO wants those poor people to ignore everything and quit smoking as their sole priority.

Robert Fisk says it all in his article but readers should remember that the same organisation has become a private club of unelected individuals. It says a lot about the lavish cocoon they inhabit that they could make such an outrageous statement as this right now.


In defence of Finian McGrath 

"Finian's Rainbow," one journalist called it.

While I was away last week the new junior health minister Finian McGrath made a very simple public statement asking for everyone to "cut the smoker some slack". That was it really. As Ian O'Doherty put it in his article, "Contrary to what many supporters of the smoking ban seemed to believe, the issue was never just about cigarettes. It actually was a land grab for our personal freedoms."

Asked about the specifics of the slack he referred to, Finian quite rightly pointed to the issue of comfortable smoking rooms in public places or, more correctly, the lack of them. I vividly remember the introduction of the ban and how on one night the pubs allowed smoking while the very next night they couldn't allow it. It was a shock to the system and many smokers just quit going to the pub, leading to closures at the rate of one a day for a long time afterwards.

In response creative publicans began developing beer gardens and outdoor areas to accommodate smokers and this led to dedicated smoking rooms popping up around the country. This were called 'smoking rooms' and by implication they were a separate area from the bar for those wishing to smoke. The signs didn't specify 'No Precious Children Allowed' but you suspect the bar owner expected parents to use their heads. The adult non-smoker though was left in no doubt as to what the room was for and what went on in there.

Smoking rooms were not IN the bar but OUTSIDE it. They were designed to ensure that non-smokers were not exposed to second hand smoke. Several I saw had employed double-door systems to ensure that not a wisp of smoke could escape. Bar staff didn't serve drinks in there nor did they clean up until well after the smokers had left. In other words, owners went to great length to segregate the smoker from the non-smoker.

The basic idea was to cater for all customers. Critical to the publican's thinking was the weather, or bad weather in particular. Smokers were going cheerfully outside in the warmth and sunshine but the rain and cold saw them having one drink then heading for home or not showing up at all. So a nice smoking room was essential for both owner and customer.

Seeing this development the puritans and nannies panicked and a new clause was quietly added to the statute books. The new definition of a smoking room became "An area open to the elements equal to the square floor area." In plain English it meant either no roof or two walls missing. It was a guarantee you would get wet and cold in the smoking room on a bad day and for the life of me I can see no good reason that should be so. By definition it is a place to go for a smoke. By definition the users would be smokers who will smoke cigarettes anyway, so why must they be cold and wet for doing nothing illegal?

That was Finian's question and he is echoing the sentiments of the vast majority of decent Irish smokers. He is saying what we are thinking and that is, "You have tried to price us out of it, you called us names and invited others to do so, you have pushed us out of society and look down on us and done all that you can to make life hard for us. Yet still, we continue to enjoy a smoke when we want to.

"We buy cheap black market cigarettes, we ignore your scorn and threats, we go about our lives with quiet dignity and tolerance, and we gently work around your nastiness. We would like a comfortable smoking room and, what's more, our local publican would like to provide it for us. We don't want to bother anyone and if you don't want us inside the pub we are happy to leave your company and join like-minded people in the smoking room.

"Our money is as good as yours and if segregation is what you want then let's have it. But there is absolutely no reason that you should dictate the terms of the smoking room, either to us, the users, or to the man or woman who owns it. It is our tiny little bit of space and, if you like, you can sit with your respectable friends in the empty cathedral you made of the main bar. We'll be outside chatting and laughing in the smoking room."

That is all the honest Finian had to say on the matter but the reactions to it were explosive. The letters pages in the mainstream press were full of outrage. Have a look here, here, here, here, here and here for a flavour of the vitriol:

Some of those correspondents purposely tried to mislead the public by implying Finian was demanding the workplace ban be overturned. Such manipulative disinformation is despicable and yet so typical of the nasty tactics often employed by some quarters. They are spiteful small-minded people peddling fear and misery for their own power-mad aspirations and phobias.

But the point is still valid and as a group of 800,000 decent people we should be agitating for comfortable smoking rooms in pubs everywhere to reflect the commercial demand for same in a civilized western democracy. Whether you identify with his politics or not, Finian McGrath deserves our support on this issue and I for one am going to contact him and tell him so.

Perhaps we needed to be pushed this far before we sat up and pushed back a little?


Best international practice

I am just back from my very first holiday cruise and I have observations for all of you smokers out there.

The trip took us from Germany to Denmark and then to three Norwegian fjords, which was the point of the exercise. The passengers were made up of Italians, Germans, Belgians, French, Austrians, Spanish and Portuguese. To show how 'international' it truly was we were one of only two English speaking couples out of 2,000 people.

Reviews I'd read in advance suggested that MSC Lines were totally anti-smoking and this made me apprehensive to the point of cancelation a couple of times before we went. Happily it didn't turn out that way. Smoking was permitted on the top deck just outside the cafeteria and in another covered top deck area conveniently beside a bar. You could smoke anywhere on the starboard side of deck seven, and that was a huge sheltered area. One side of the casino had tables and ashtrays where the casino bar served to your table. If that wasn't enough there was the 'smoker's bar' on deck six, a large, fully enclosed and decorated pub with tobacco as the theme. OK, it was just one of ten bars on board but it was for there for smokers only.

An unscientific set of observations on my part suggested to me that between a quarter to a third of passengers smoked and what was most noteworthy was the easy acceptance of this by the non-smoking majority. There were no harsh judgmental looks and no unhelpful advice from unwanted busybodies. Crew members facilitated the request for an ashtray in the same spirit they brought food or drink. These were all educated people, both passengers and crew, and what I witnessed was the ideal example of that much hackneyed phrase 'Best International Practice'.

So what of the terms and conditions ashore? After all, one would have thought that sophisticated Scandinavia would surely out the smoker for the shameful people we are supposed to be. Well, not a bit of it. Everywhere we went – in Copenhagen, Stavanger, Kiel and two other tiny ports as well – the smoker was as welcome as anybody else. There were restrictions of course but everywhere I went there was a decent effort at sensible accommodation too. The pariah label did not follow me from Ireland and it was oddly refreshing and enlivening for it. And it was noticeable to me that more Europeans smoked unselfconsciously in public than do that hunted minority at home. Honestly, we are light years behind in the freedom and civilization stakes.

Odd too that when you clear passport control and security at Dublin Airport you can avail yourself of the rooftop smoking garden just outside a bar. Beautifully laid out and appointed, this large space was hopping busy for the hour I was there. The joviality of anticipated travel seemed to meld with the freedom to smoke comfortably and in peace and together it produced a detectable air of carefree happiness in the sunshine that morning.

It's such a pity the busybodies conspired to remove that very feeling from our pubs under the pretext of 'Best International Practice' to justify an extreme ban on smoking. It is patently no such thing.


Deckchairs rearranged

From Martin to Harney and on through the reign of Stubbs Reilly to Varadkar, every incumbent in the Health Minister's office has consistently sought to make a smoker's life more difficult and expensive.

Martin was given Health by Bertie as a poisoned chalice to dim his ardor for the top job. Harney sort of drifted aimlessly into it and managed to drift aimlessly out of it as well to a generous pension that resembled her physique. Reilly was always less than the full bob, living as he does on a planet of his own making, and he was never ever going to confront the real issue of the HSE itself. But, smokers aside, Varadkar offered actual hope that the underlying problems could be tackled and, perish the thought, the health service might actually improve. His leadership ambitions of the party put paid to that, though.

The papers are quoting Fine Gael colleagues of his as suggesting that "He's been shafted." The popular and delectable Dr Leo has been given leadership of the riffraff in his new posting in Social Protection. Minister for the dole Varadkar is said to be "not amused". Another ambitious minster from the outgoing shambles is Simon Coveney who must have reckoned it was either Leo or himself that would perch at the top of the pile for the next five years. He's been given the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government including water and if that doesn't soften his cough, nothing will. The water debate alone would drown a better man.

Health, then, is truly the political graveyard of government. Nobody does a stint in that black hole and emerges smelling of roses. Shrewd operators like Noonan would snort at the offer of a term in Health. Harney knew she was being kicked sideways when she got it and her mind was already in retirement mode. Martin understood he was undermining Bertie's popularity when it was slapped into his unwilling mitts. Reilly was so stupid he reckoned it was a reward for licking Enda's arse all those years. Maybe it finally dawned on him when he was side-swiped into being minister for children's smoking. He'll have years on the sidelines to consider it now anyway.

And what of Varadkar? I sensed from the beginning that Leo never really saw smoking as being an important issue for the Health Service. I think Leo mouthed the platitudes but understood the true malaise ran deeper than mere cigarettes and he wanted to tackle the myriad of actual ills that bedevils the HSE. His unfortunate air of independence might have made a difference in his given department but they were nails in the coffin of his political progression.

So, in a surprise move, a no-hoper called Simon Harris has emerged to take over from Leo. Under education his profile tells us that he has a BA in Journalism from the Dublin Institute of Technology back in 1986. Then we read that he is only 29 years old and if both are true then he got his BA when he was nine.

Wikipedia isn't always necessarily correct of course. So who is this latest Simon we will have to contend with? He's a Wicklow County councillor who ran unsuccessfully for the 2014 European Parliament election, perhaps seeing the Phil Hogan gravy train at the time. Then on 15 July 2014 he was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works. This is the kind of empty long-winded title that suggests another arse-licker rewarded. And that's your lot folks. That is Simon Harris, the new Minister of Health. He looks, from his photographs, to be about 16 and there's nothing on his CV to suggest even a remote suitability for the new appointment.

This then is extremely bad news for us smokers and indeed the rest of you who may be unfortunate enough to need anything from the HSE in the coming months. I say months because this cobbled together government is designed to fail. We'll be voting again this side of Christmas or shortly afterwards, make no mistake. In the meantime poor youthful Harris will spend a month with senior civil servants at his new department learning that nothing will ever change and nothing he could possibly do will make one whit of a difference. In response he will search around wildly for some kind of media headlines until the lobby groups for the various charities who specialize in persecuting smokers get their turn with the hapless adolescent.

He will be 'taught' that smokers want to pay five euro for every single cigarette they enjoy, they want to be banned, fined and ridiculed and the persecution must be ramped up for the edification of the smug in society. In the absence of fox-hunting after all there must be a viable helpless prey. Cue the headlines that the new Minister intends to get tough with smokers.

We've seen the same bullshit time and time again. In politics nothing ever changes, apart from the deckchairs.


The devil really is in the detail

Over two years ago, at a public health hearing in government buildings, the question was posed by the committee as to the costs associated with treating smokers for illness.

The HSE spokesperson on the day calmly reported their annual estimate for this at €550 million. On the same day, in answer to another question, the Revenue spokesperson reported the combined income from tobacco in Ireland to be €1,200 million (excise and VAT).

So in Ireland smokers pay in advance for all of their medical treatment and pay the same again for no good reason at all. Many smokers may have health insurance or even medical cards but they pay for everything regardless. I have mentioned this fact on the media several times and it has not sat well with those who would like you to believe that smokers are a drain on society.

However the smoke-haters could never allow the truth get in the way of a good rumour and on Friday the Irish Examiner snuck in a piece headlined 'Smoking costing healthcare system half a billion a year'.

It's interesting because they suggested that the treatment of smokers by the HSE has actually fallen to €506 million a year, a drop of €44 million. But then they re-visit an old chestnut that has been discredited many times in the past. They attribute a further €1,000 million cost in 'lost productivity' by smokers, thus proving that smokers are a drain on society.

So I went to the Department Of Health website to find out how this was calculated/fabricated. The anomalies and contradictions leaped off the pages at me.

Let's start with the dreaded exposure to secondhand smoke and the resultant cancers and heart problems we have all heard about among non-smokers because of it. The DoH estimate that 5,960 innocent people present themselves for treatment each year due to the effects of 'passive' smoking and smokers are to blame.

You must be wondering how much this costs the taxpayer? Incredibly there is no cost associated with it! Treating non-smokers for exposure to tobacco smoke is free, apparently. Can you believe that? Neither can I. Perhaps the reason there are no costs for such treatment is the fact that there no patients reporting with it? It could be down to the fact the ETS was a fabricated scam designed to divide smokers and non-smokers and offer the latter a kind of victim status. The truth though is that second-hand smoke is not a real problem and therefore has no costs associated with it.

Hospital inpatient admissions for smokers is estimated to cost €171 million a year and that's interesting because recently HIQA reported that upon admission to any Irish hospital patients are not asked whether they smoke or not. No data in any hospital in Ireland records the number of smokers or non-smokers at any given time. So where did the figure come from? They list day care appointments for smokers at a cost of €13 million and it is interesting to note that the authors are assuming that if none of these people smoked then there would be no such day care or cost. Surely that is a bit of a giant leap?

Now I know from experience that outpatient departments have begun to routinely ask if you smoke or not and the report claims that smoker's visits cost €15 million. But even if you are brought in as a result of a car accident they will ask if you smoke. You would have to wonder, given the condemning tone of authors, whether any visit by a smoker regardless of the reason, is attributed to smoking.

Primary care for smokers, they say, costs €256 million and I find that odd too. In the confused melee that the HSE has become, operations are being routinely cancelled and patients are waiting sometimes up to three years to be rescheduled. Heart disease is the biggest killer here but it's impossible to single out one factor in heart disease and attribute to it all of the blame for the condition. Yet if you are a 30 stone boozer with a history of family heart trouble and also smoke it must be costed as a smoking-related problem. That's the only way this figure could be arrived at.

They are scratching the bottom of the barrel when they throw in an arbitrary figure of one million euro for ambulance transportation, are they not? But they are positively taking the piss when they move on to 'loss of productivity'. The estimates for this make up over one billion euros, or the bulk of their estimated costs. Nearly half of the total figure is attributed to premature death alone.

Bearing in mind that cancer and heart disease are over 95 per cent of the reported totals for tobacco death, both conditions materialize mainly in old age. By old age I mean pensionable age (over 66). Yet the Department of Health mandarins have calculated that the affected pensioners would have kicked in €711 million in productive revenue if they hadn't been sick from smoking. That is in the realms of fantasy but note that half the total figure for smoker's costs is slipped in here.

Equally they manufactured a figure of a further €224 million which they say is the estimated loss due to 'smoker's absence'. I was smoking regularly for 46 years and though I shamefully admit to the odd lost day due to beer excesses down the years I never missed a single day due to smoking. I can't even see why you could. It just doesn't work that way. This €224 million number is an illusion, nothing else.

They touch on another popular hobby horse and that is the smoking break. This, I presume, alludes to the smoker simply walking out of the office or factory at any time of their choosing during the eight-hour working day to have a smoke. Nowhere in employment law, either here or anywhere else, does such a provision exist. Indeed it's the smoker that has the grievance in this regard.

One day twelve years ago it became illegal for them to smoke at their desk and ever since then smokers have had to wait for the morning break, lunchtime and the afternoon break to go outside for a cigarette. There is therefore zero productivity loss to consider and yet this report claims a loss of €136 million nationwide each year due to the disallowed practice. It is utter fabrication. In any instance where a worker leaves their station, for any reason, without permission and does so regularly every employer has their own disciplinary procedures to apply. Smoke breaks do not exist!

The last big line item this report wants you to swallow is litter costs from smoking, allegedly standing at €69 million. Two issues arise from this. Smoking indoors always meant an ashtray to discard the burning finished item and smokers never asked to be put outdoors. Indeed they were ordered out and told that smoking outside was fine. However, putting over a million people with their lighted cigarettes outside must surely have come with the responsibility to provide ashtrays outside also? You cannot put a lighted cigarette in your pocket, as you would with a sweet paper, and dispose of it later. The purposeful non-provision of suitable ashtrays accounts for any discarded cigarettes in the outdoors. The other point I would raise is just how discarded cigarettes can be separated from the collection of general waste to arrive at the €69 million sum? The street-sweepers and their lorries don't appear to differentiate, do they?

All in all then this report is laughable. It is difficult to decide whether it was commissioned to make smokers ashamed of themselves or to anger non-smokers (or both), but it such a bunch of dreamt-up nonsense that any thinking person must discard it for the junk it truly is. However I would be very interested to know how much it cost you and me to make it happen. We've had years of health costs and several surgeons have reported unnecessary deaths due to a lack of funds. How many will die because funding has been funneled into the creation of this pack of lies, I wonder?


Ireland's Index-linked bond to the nanny state

It has always been a great source of amazement to me that so many of my fellow citizens in this country should urge the government of the day to introduce more and more resrictions on our personal lifestyles and freedoms and demand higher taxes for everyone. It's the moral equivalent of presenting both wrists and saying, "Cuff me."

We have seen so often that governments needs little encouragement to increase taxes while introducing endless laws to restrict our freedoms at the same time. The scourge of 'public health', financed mostly by government, is their new tool to justify tax increases with fewer personal freedoms all in one go. A concerted public health scare on any commodity leads to restrictions on its use, a price increase for that commodity as a penalty and thereby further control of the citizen's behavior. This has rightly been christened "nannying" and should be roundly opposed by any sane person.

I am grateful this morning to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) for informing us just how bad things are in Ireland today in the nannying stakes. We should be ashamed that we are the fourth worst country on the European league table when it comes to the scourge of nannying. On this, the centenary of the 1916 Rising and all that struggle for freedom entailed, we have become the one of the least free countries to live in. But public health campaigners will counter that it's for our own good and they know better.

Strangely though the one country that all of Europe looks up to, the one that is the driving force of the continent today and the envy of all others is also one the most free countries on the nanny index. Germany is wealthy and healthy at the same time, it is structured and disciplined and appears to trust its own citizens to make choices for themselves. Austria, Holland and Luxembourg are other examples of our other freest neighbours.

It is interesting too to study the analysis of the health outcomes on the index. It appears that the myriad of taxes and restrictions demanded by public health have had no positive effect on our personal longevity. Countries where citizens are allowed to make their own free choices on food, alcohol and tobacco fare no worse than those countries that restrict and overtax those products. The health of the public is unchanged but the wealth and freedom of the individual is altered considerably in the less free countries.

Public health, as a lobby, will always cite price as the most effective tool for curbing personal choices. This is true of the less well off but price makes no difference to the better off. Therefore such tax increases can be rightly viewed as a penalty for being born poor. Minimum pricing for alcohol, exorbitant taxes on tobacco and the proposed imposition of new taxes on certain foods are aimed squarely at the lower social orders, make no mistake. The inference is that the poor are too stupid to decide for themselves and must be forced to comply with the vision of others. Why not try to educate those who know no better?

Alcohol, tobacco and sugar are all realities of our modern society and are as normal and acceptable as living in centrally heated homes. That the individual has the responsibility to monitor and control their consumption is without question, but that the State has a responsibility to intervene at such a micro-level in our lives is very much open to debate. Do you want to be told how many hours sleep you must have at night and, indeed, what time you must go to bed? Would you care to see a curfew after midnight with a set of fines in place for those who do not obey? It is not as mad as you might first think. A lack of sleep can cause mental and physical problems you know!

Being ruled by our elected representatives is one thing but being nannied by them and their unelected cronies in public health is quite another. But what we all need to understand is that nannying has become big business. The vested interests that claim to battle obesity, alcoholism and nicotine addiction are all jostling with each other for further funds from the national purse. Tax increases in their area will usually include a ring-fenced amount for those lobby groups involved so that they can increase their spend on more lobbying for more restrictions and taxes.

If you doubt that think back to 2004 and the smoking ban. At that time we were told that it was introduced to protect non-smokers. In the twelve years since we now know that it was the opening salvo on smokers themselves and nothing whatsoever to do with non-smokers. That well has all but dried up now for the hungry leeches in public health hence they turn their heads now to alcohol and sugar as the next great source of income. I can only conclude that those who support them in their calls for restrictions and price increases must also have their own vested interests as well. Otherwise we are turkeys voting for Christmas.


Good riddance to bad rubbish

We are all too familiar with Dr James 'Stubb' Reilly and his unreasonable hatred of smokers.

The portly gent had placed the persecution of smokers at the top of his list of priorities when he headed up the Health Ministry. Indeed, because of his manic preoccupation with it, he took his eye off the ball in all of the other areas of health. As a result he was, ahem, promoted sideways to become instead the 'Minister of Children's Smoking'.

I encountered Reilly face-to-face in the RTE Green Room prior to us both going head-to-head on Prime Time and I can honestly say that, in the flesh, he is even less attractive than on screen. That night his staffers even tried to intimidate me before we went on air. Roiseen Shorthall had the temerity to face him up in the Dail when she was his sidekick and paid the price of resignation for so doing.

But Reilly was, in truth, an embarrassment to Fine Gael and seasoned insiders didn't expect to see him back on the front benches. They needn't have worried though because the good people of Fingal already knew they'd made a major blooper voting for him last time. Given another chance they have dumped him out of politics, hopefully forever.

Forest reminded each of the candidates before the election that the 800,000 smokers in Ireland are also voters. Thankfully Finian McGrath, an outspoken friend of the smoker, has been re-elected (after a long and uncertain wait for the result) and one our sworn opponents has been rejected.

I am sufficiently realistic to know that the constant persecution of smokers by the last government was not the deciding factor but it was a consideration among many other ones for those affected. With Reilly gone however smokers can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that no minister can be as anti-tobacco as he was.

That said, we still have no discernible government and, like Lisbon, we may all be told to go back a second time and get it right. The coming weeks will tell a lot.


Smokers are voters too

I am in Dublin today for the launch of the Forest Eireann manifesto (above).

An agency has organized a trailer festooned with the core messages we wish to convey to candidates in the coming General Election and I was pictured with it outside Leinster House.

I had a couple of odd incidents though as I waited for the arrival of the photographer. Like thousands of others around the country I watched the second leader's debate last night and just like others I thought Enda Kenny did badly. Smoking hardly got a mention but it's buried in the manifestos if you care to look.

So there I am a couple of hours ago looking across the road to the Dail when Enda himself saunters up behind me. It was a golden opportunity to confront the man regarding his five years of persecuting smokers but I took a look at him and saw a guy under serious pressure. So I shot the breeze gently with him, even going so far as to wish him luck. I disagree fundamentally with his party on so many things but Forest is a freedom organisation so he and his colleagues are entitled to think and say as they wish. Civility costs nothing.

But smokers too have the right to speak up for themselves and we have seen when we don't that vested interests will trample all over us. I was musing on this when my phone rang and an angry voice established that I was who he wanted before castigating me and calling me a disgrace. This man let me know that he smoked for 40 years and had given them up and he would now like to see smoking banned outright. Civility though still costs nothing. So I gently put our side to him and he acknowledged there was some sense to it. He wound up a ten minute conversation with me by laughing and complementing me on being "probably a very nice man".

Though we differed on smoking we had a lot in common when it came to our personal freedoms and that really is the message we want to get to the political classes this week and next. The citizen in a republican democracy must be allowed to make decisions for themselves, be they good are bad. That is after all what our forefathers in 1916 fought for. As I slowly pointed out to the fine gentleman on the telephone, he was free to take up smoking when he did and free also to quit when he chose to.

And for those of you reading this with a dubious expression, mark my words, if the right to smoke is taken from 800,000 of us then many of the rights you take for granted today will similarly come under attack at the whim of vested interests. Remember that when you are about to vote.


Keep calm and carry on

Out of the blue last night I was asked by 98FM in Dublin to come on a show hosted by Adrian Kennedy and Jeremy Dixon, "Dublin's most controversial talk show presenters".

The unlikely lads were locked in a glass case on Dame Street and listeners had to enter a competition by guessing a five letter string code to unlock it.

Anyway, earlier in the day 98FM had done a quick listener poll about people taking smoke-breaks at work and, surprise, surprise, 64 per cent wanted the practice banned. Apparently we Irish just love a good ban as long as it doesn't affect us personally.

At this point let me say that I have been on radio and television quite a bit over the last five years on behalf of Forest so I have received all kinds of receptions during that time. But the lad Jeremy last night took the biscuit for crass ignorance and biased broadcasting.

I waited on the line to be introduced and had to listen as Jeremy framed the subject for debate. In an over-excited high pitched tone he appeared to be shouting when he said, "I hate smokers. I think they are sad sick smelly people. The idiots are just killing themselves and I don't want any of them anywhere near me."

He went on in this colourful vein for some time before Adrian introduced me. Remaining calm I made several reasonable points before referring to his outburst as a personal and partial opinion. Jeremy was back quoting some phony research and when I began to question that I was cut off.

The presenter's behaviour was insulting, inaccurate and one-sided but then anybody impartial who was tuned in could have heard that instantly. Had he used such a diatribe against any other minority he would be quickly on the dole and facing a court case for the public outburst.

And yet I sense that Jeremy believes he is giving what his listenership wants to hear and that in itself is a sad reflection on us all. It was obviously a topical subject of interest to 98FM listeners and it deserved a sensible debate from both sides of the argument instead of a demonstration of stupidity on behalf of the presenter.

I won't be registering a complaint but perhaps a calmer head in the production team might have a quiet word in someone's ear.

Mind you, I hope last night's abomination will not set the media tone for the year to come!


Health and hostility: how the medical profession deals with smokers

The ICS tell us that 'One third of Irish smokers are claiming to be unconcerned about being diagnosed with lung cancer'.

The 1,000 participants were a mix of smokers and non-smokers though we're not told what the ratio was. But 'More than three quarters of the 1,000 adults who took part in the ICS study said they had never had a conversation with their doctor or pharmacist on the topic of lung health.' Bearing in mind that lung cancer is the single worst of all cancers in terms of mortality, this may at first appear odd. And yet, of the 29,000 deaths annually in the State, only 1,100 succumb due to lung cancer.

Kevin O’Hagan, cancer prevention manager at the Irish Cancer Society, claims there was a “kind of fatalism” among smokers in their attitudes to lung cancer. This is the same organization that wildly claimed that even one cigarette can cause disease. In that light, if you've been a 20-a-day man for 30 years then you're too late. You've had 219,000 attempts at lung cancer by now so odds on you have it. Or have you?

If you go for tests for the disease I have been warned you should never declare that you are a smoker. This is because there is a bias among the white coats towards believing the smoker must have it. A couple of years back in another context entirely, I was sent for a lung function test. Unfortunately the hospital was in possession of the fact that I smoked. The machine operator and a senior nurse fitted me up to the machine and after the first test they whispered among themselves. I was asked to repeat the test not once but twice more. Then I was told to wait outside.

I remember a certain dread as I waited (for nearly 30 minutes at that). When they called me back in they explained that the machine was faulty and had to be reset. The test was carried out twice more amid lots of whispering and strange looks. I was again asked to wait outside. Finally an elderly doctor joined in and I was made to do the test yet again. All three stood behind the readout screen as I exhaled as hard as I was told to. Incredibly I had to actually ask if there was a problem only to be told with distain that I had the lungs of a young man. Their disappointment was palpable but unspoken.

For years now Public Health has spent a fortune convincing non-smokers they are innocent victims so, by extension, the smoker is the guilty perpetrator. Because of this fabricated guilt the smoker gets little sympathy from the medical profession and could be excused for viewing the doctor as the enemy in fact. On top of this, campaigns are run regularly blaming smoking for practically everything and it is this incessant brainwashing that must ultimately make the smoker believe they must have some illness. The ICS study says that 32 per cent of smokers avoided the doctor due to the fear of what they might discover. Mind you, that figure for non-smokers is 22 per cent and in the modern climate you have to wonder just what they think could possibly go wrong as they don't smoke.

In the end each of us is ultimately responsible for our own health. In the last while we have discovered that the ICS itself is cutting back on the financial assistance they can offer to cancer sufferers but as this latest poll shows there's no end of money available to condemn the smoker. Attitudes towards the smoker among the medical profession have hardened so much that it verges on hostility. If the ICS wants to know why smokers tend to avoid the doctor they could look back at their own track record of demonizing these ordinary people for the legal habit they choose to indulge in. When you incite hatred toward a minority you can expect a certain resentment in return.

My own belief is that the average smoker doesn't want to have some medic smugly saying, "I told you so!"


Will the HIQA review be a help or a hindrance to e-cigarettes in Ireland?

The Department of Health has asked the health watchdog HIQA (Health Information and Quality Authority) to examine a variety of different smoking cessation treatments that are currently available in Ireland. As an afterthought they say that "E-cigarettes will be among the props to be probed as part of the assessment."

On the surface of it this sounds like good news. We have known for years that the numbers availing of pharmaceutical products to aid quitting has been abysmal and yet this stuff for a long time was the only game in town. But if HIQA are not truly independent then this 'examination' may have its conclusions drawn up before the facts are even looked at. Sadly this is how much of the research into smoking is done.

So my question would be, who will HIQA communicate with during this exercise? You can bet your bottom dollar the tobacco companies will be banned from coming within an asses roar of the place. I don't expect an invitation to be extended to Forest Eireann either. Will those e-cig manufacturers be asked for their data or opinions, I wonder?

What you can be sure of though is that the ICS, the IHF and ASH will be consulted and doubtless the combined pharmaceutical industry will supply their own version of quitting numbers to be presented as hard data by HIQA. Prof Luke Clancy is a consultant to government on all things smoking so HIQA can hardly ignore him, can they?

So even before this begins it might be skewed by definition. For example, Prof Clancy is, or certainly has been, a paid consultant to Pfizer for its range of smoking cessation products. The intro states unambiguously in a section marked as conflicting interests, 'Prof Luke Clancy and Prof Witold Zatonski have undertaken research and consultancy for companies that develop and manufacture smoking cessation medications.' If that is not a conflict of interest then I don't know what is. Prof John Crown, the vocal anti-smoking oncologist, may be asked for his input too. Seasoned traveller that he is, John has openly admitted to taking the pharmaceutical shilling when it comes to his four medical conferences a year in foreign climes.

It might appear then that Dr Máirín Ryan, HIQA's director of health technology assessment, will have her hands full trying to get an realistic picture of the quitting numbers and the motivations for it. This is important because their assessment will be published by the end of the year and you just know that the findings, regardless of what they turn out to be, will be used inform legislation on the quitting products that will be available after that time.

This harmless looking examination at the behest of the Dept of Health could spell the demise of e-cigs in Ireland because that is how these things have been done for over eleven years now when it comes to smoking.


Scrutiny of Irish Cancer Society finances long overdue

Smokers could be forgiven for harbouring ambiguous feelings towards the Irish Cancer Society.

For years we've had to listen to their propaganda demonising us for enjoying a smoke while their incessant lobbying of government has penalised us both financially and socially. However there is no doubting the good work they do with sufferers of that horrible disease. As such I have mixed feelings about the ICS whenever I find myself debating in public with their representatives.

I've written before about the ludicrous system in Ireland for the registration of charities such as the ICS. But once conferred there is a very light touch approach from Revenue towards balance sheets in these organisations. This is understandable given their tax-free status but it means that their income and expenditure figures can be vague to say the least and we have to accept their word when they tell what they got, where they got it from, and what they spent it on.

On Tuesday they announced via their website that they would be ceasing their 'Financial Support Programme' because "the demand has become too big for us to manage". Apparently the annual cost of this service was €1.8m from a possible budget of many millions. (See Irish cancer fund closed, The Journal.ie) 

On Joe Duffy's Liveline yesterday many women with children who had availed of this hardship fund were incensed by the move and for the first time in living memory the ICS got bad press. It was pointed out that the payroll costs at the ICS stands at €7.4m for 152 staff, of whom 12 were paid over €70,000. Indeed their CEO has an annual salary of €145,000. Joe Duffy himself mentioned the taxpayers' money that goes to the ICS and even went as far as to speculate that the closure of this service might be a tactic to pressure more funding from the Government.

Kathleen O'Meara, their able spokesperson I know so well, declined to appear on Liveline with Joe but she did pop up on Drivetime later in the day to explain their move. Defending the charity’s decision she said the ICS had "looked at all the possibilities before opting to axe the scheme." With regard to their CEO's salary she added, " It had been looked at, but the board had passed the budget in December." (Anger as vital financial support for cancer patients to be cut by Irish Cancer Society, Irish Examiner)

What was confusing though was when Kathleen stated clearly that "We are not State supported.” She claimed that every penny they receive results from their fundraising activities. Their annual reports tend to be weighty documents but each year their income and expenditure get one page each. Under 'income' activities such as 'Daffodil Day' and 'Movember' are listed individually but the amounts are small by comparison to one large amount listed vaguely as 'other' or something similar. As a charity though they have no obligation to explain this audited sum.

Update: Irish Cancer Society reverses controversial decision to cut hardship fund for children (The Journal.ie). Apparently they have made staff savings in the 'back office' but won't comment further. Miraculously the money has been found and that's that. I have a feeling we haven't heard the last of this.

Meanwhile, smokers will be delighted to know that the €560,000 the society has earmarked for the further persecution of smokers remains in tact for 2016. So business as usual, then.

Update: According to the Irish Times, Irish Cancer Society partially reverses funding cut. "Financial support for children with cancer to continue but adults’ scheme to close." So that's alright, then.

Update: This is the story that keeps on giving, if you'll pardon the pun. The Journal.ie has dared to ask the all-important question, Counting the cost: Does the Irish Cancer Society’s hardship cut add up?. It's a fascinating read, summed up perhaps by this line: 'The more the Irish Cancer Society spends on fundraising, it would appear, the lower its return on investment.' Fancy that.

And there's more. In today's papers:

Irish Cancer Society has €8.4m cash reserves (Irish Examiner)
Cancer patients lose out despite partial u-turn by Irish Cancer Society (Irish Examiner)
Cancer charity's €74m payroll under review to fund hardship scheme (Irish Independent)

I can't remember the last time the ICS underwent this level of scrutiny. It's long overdue, in my opinion.


Merry Christmas!

Forest Eireann would like to wish its supporters and friends a very Merry Christmas.

We hope you will have a safe, prosperous and happy New Year also. The battle for freedom of choice will continue in the new year no doubt.


Smokers and vapers need to stand together because divided we fall

Over in the UK right now there appears to be some kind of animosity unfortunately developing between vapers and smokers.

At first glance it looks as if elements in the vaping community are seeking to share the high moral ground with the tobacco control industry in their condemnation of the put-upon smoker. Certainly in articles I've seen over the months an attitude of holier-than-thou is sometimes in evidence when vapers consider those of us who like to smoke.

Oddly I get no sense of that here in Ireland though. Some use e-cigs, some smoke, and many do both when it suits them. The nicotine community rarely judge each other, preferring to save their ire for those who would attempt to steal their freedom. Both smokers and vapers have a lot in common, after all. Many vapers are ex-smokers and as a freedom organisation Forest supports both the right to smoke and the right to quit too using any (lawful) method the user prefers. Because of this I have found myself on the media many times defending e-cigs and their users.

On Joe Duffy one afternoon both myself and a woman from Dublin took the legs from under a stupid doctor who was undermining e-cigs and trying to put doubts about them in people's minds. Indeed I am dual user myself so I understand the qualities of both cigarettes and e-cigs. There are two guys who I meet on the weekends that the Liverpool game is live on BT. We use e-cigs during the game, hop out to the smoking room for a cigarette at half-time, and are back on the e-cigs for the second-half. This situation evolved due to the ban but I can't remember it ever being planned or even discussed. Certainly though there is no angst between smokers and vapers in Ireland that I can detect.

Not to put too fine a point of it, the central plank of the tobacco control industry is total abstinence. Remember, you are dealing here with extremists who want to believe that even one cigarette can kill. There is no compromise from this quarter and tolerance of any kind is at zero. These people can work themselves up into a lather about a wisp of smoke outdoors. Collapsing currencies, economic austerity and a world on the brink of war are secondary issues for the tobacco control industry. They will tolerate pharmaceutical nicotine from their sponsors and indeed they recommend it to those on the journey to abstinence. But the idea of recreational nicotine is anathema for them and that is why I believe they will secretly fight to gain control over e-cigs with a view to watering them down to uselessness.

So what then of the less than complimentary things being said about smokers? Apart from being stupid and insulting, it achieves a prime objective of tobacco control, that of divide and conquer. Nothing would please tobacco control more than the sight of smokers and vapers trading insults. Parroting the mantra about e-cigs being 95 per cent safer won't cut the mustard with them either because tobacco control has never been about health. It has morphed into a controlling religion often verging on extremism. From the point of view of the tobacco control activists, 'Abstinence is 100 per cent safer than anything else'. Full stop.

Smokers and vapers need to stand together in the face of such absolutist doctrine because divided we fall, nothing surer.