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Beware the tyranny of health

Last week the tobacco control industry celebrated the EU decision to festoon 65 per cent of your cigarette box, front and back, with enlarged health warnings featured grotesque images of 'smoking-related diseases' (most of them very rare).

In Ireland we are told that 5,200 people die every year from smoking. The question is, what do the other 24,000 people die of? We lose 29,000 people each year and if even one of those had died due to something obscure, should that obscurity not be banned or restricted also? At what number of deaths does the principle of 'duty of care' begin and intervention become justified?

Findings from various quarters list fizzy drinks, obesity, stress and even hospitals themselves as being responsible for more deaths than smoking. But even a lesser number of deaths from anything at all deserves to be looked at under the same spotlight as tobacco.

All of the same tobacco arguments can be applied to alcohol, for example. It's utterly unnecessary for life, it's carcinogenic, it's a potential burden on the healthcare system and children should be protected from it. So should the pint be denormalised? Should a bottle of wine feature a diseased liver over 65 per cent of its surface? Would trebling the price lower consumption rates? The theory is that even if only one life is saved, it's worth it.

These arguments can be applied to the humble motor car as well. Diesel fumes are carcinogenic, life existed before the car and would continue without it, and children are killed by cars too. If the speed limit were to be five mph everywhere then lives would definitely be saved. It's nonsense, of course, but relevant in the current debate on smoking.

The over-emphasis on tobacco is skewing the health debate here and while one sixth of deaths are attributed to it, five sixths of all deaths slide under the radar. If government is serious about its duty of care then it has a right and responsibility to intervene in every single aspect of our lives as a matter of priority. The medical profession must be empowered to dictate how we live and any and all instances of sickness must be the subject to a heavy fine for the unfortunate sufferer.

This is the natural extension of the logic currently being applied to smoking. Beware the growing tyranny of health.


What Stubbs Reilly really meant

There was a telling questions and answers session in the Dail last week that I would like to draw to your attention.

Jerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) asked the Minister for Health what was the number of people who died from smoking related diseases in 2012 and what was the amount of expenditure dedicated to anti-smoking advertisements on TV in 2012? Both, of course, are important questions and should form the basis of a risk benefit analysis to determine the proper use of public monies.

In response, Stubbs Reilly said that although figures are not routinely collated on people who die from smoking related diseases, it has been estimated that at least 5,200 people die from diseases caused by tobacco use each year. To put that in English for you he means, "There is no actual category of illness for smoking because the conditions involved are all multifactorial. It would be impossible to prove conclusively that even one person has died from smoking alone so we have a propaganda figure of 5,200 that we all parrot whenever asked."

Then the portly one turned his attention to the hideous amount of money being wasted on smoking:

"The health education campaign QUIT, aimed at encouraging smokers to quit, was initiated by the HSE in 2011. It incorporates paid media (TV, radio, bus shelters, etc.), public relations, online and phone support, counselling and clinics, special events and promotions, all aimed at the core target audience of smokers aged 25-39. The campaign has shown marked and sustained increases in the numbers of people seeking help to quit."

Again in English, this would read: "The HSE are a mystery to all of us and they are utterly unaccountable to anyone. According to one of their spokespersons however, everything is just hunky-dory." However, the question was about the expenditure on the campaign, one of hundreds of smoker-hating operations that the taxpayer has funded. Stubbs batted this one away with an airy:

"As the campaign is operated directly by the HSE, I have referred your query on costs to the HSE for direct reply to you."

This is the interesting one to watch. Jerry-the-Butt must now write to the HSE to ask them directly how much they are wasting on tobacco control while everything else crumbles around them. Unlike a Dail debate, the public will never learn the answer. The HSE may simply be true to form and ignore the request. Just as likely, they probably don't know how much and don't care either. I can guarantee you that this is the last that you or I will ever hear about it though.

But just as importantly, if some hack in the future should ask Stubbs about the high cost of tobacco control he will simply answer, "I've already explained all of that clearly in the Dail." Is it any wonder we are in the mess we are in?


Truth behind that Irish Cancer Society plain packs study

The big news in tobacco control over the last few weeks was a study commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society into the effects of plain packaging on teenagers.

It was reported widely by the media but the reports were almost exactly the same. This is because the survey findings themselves were not seen by any journalists so their reports were based on the ICS press release.

Press freedom goes out of the window when they simply publish propaganda and parcel it as news for you. Why did nobody demand to see the full report? In the absence of investigation and actual analysis by objective observers we were given spin and even, perhaps, lies.

But blogger Chris Snowden managed to get his hands on the actual report and yesterday he highlighted some of the facts that were omitted from the press release and the media reports. Needless to say they paint a very different picture.

Chris explains that:

If asked whether they think the 'plain' packs look worse than existing packs, they say that they do. Anyone would. The question that campaigners have never come close to answering is whether making the packs look worse will put people off smoking.

Remember, the contention is that plain packs will help put teenagers off from starting to smoke and the ICS claimed that this survey proved it!!!

Chris goes on:

For example, this new Irish study finds that brand awareness amongst both never-smokers and smoking "enthusiasts" (their word for occasional//social smokers) was low. Amongst the enthusiasts, brand recognition was "generally limited".

In reality, when offered a free cigarette by a companion, they couldn't care less what brand it is.

Chris continues:

Awareness of brands was only high amongst teens who were already regular, daily smokers, which is what you would expect from regular consumers of any product. There is no evidence here that brands play any part in smoking initiation.

Again the teenagers are saying that they know which brand they now smoke, not that the brand had anything to do with the decision to start smoking.

The crux for me is Chris's discovery of the following statement:

When it comes to choosing which cigarette brand to purchase, price is ultimately the deciding factor for teens and most will automatically choose the cheapest irrespective of whether it is their first choice.

The standard teen decision to smoke was affected by the money they had so, like any other product, if they decide to smoke and are by definition short of money, they buy the cheapest available. Plain packs don't change that decision to begin smoking.

The glitzy packs of the more expensive brands were rejected by teenagers because they associated them with older people. The ICS didn't tell anyone that, did they? And the teens suggest that they will eventually become desensitised to the on pack messages and many claim they will just purchase tins/personalised boxes to carry their cigarettes in. Personally I have already done just that.

And if price is the major concern of these teenagers then the smuggled cigarettes will become highly attractive for them. After all, they are half the price, there are no questions asked, they are easier to get and they carry the allure of illegality as well. That is certainly a dizzy cocktail for any impressionable teenager.

Read Chris's full post here, That Irish plain packs study.


Buyer beware

The Journal reported yesterday that 24,400 cigarettes were seized in Cork. It caught my eye because of the small amounts involved.

A Polish bloke on his way home from Warsaw had 900 packets of 20 in a suitcase and I hear you say, "Of course he did, and why wouldn't he?? The dogs in the street know that members of the large Polish community here will club together when one of their number is paying a visit to the homeland. In this case, I suspect, two other Polish nationals who also smoke 20-a-day gave our criminal a grand each and he added his own to buy a years supply for the three of them. The same amount here would have cost them €11,000.

If he had just brought in 300 packets, had a tax-paid receipt from a Warsaw shop, and said they were for his own consumption for a year, then the Custom's boys and girls at the airport would have waved him through. But you are not allowed to buy for someone else even if it is a most welcome present and that is why they nabbed him.

Actually, Customs and Excise are very reasonable on this point and will give you the benefit of the doubt. They use their experience, knowledge and discretion when deciding in each case. If you are fortunate enough to be traveling to almost any other EU country, they take the view that a few cheap fags for yourself is fair enough and you are entitled to it under EU law. The crime arises when they suspect that you might profit from the haul and bringing in cigarettes for friends is treated that way.

I heard of a case in Dublin Airport last year when a girl was confronted and she told Customs that the cigarettes were for her personal consumption. However, they took her to a room and gave her a cigarette to smoke to prove that she was indeed a smoker and she failed that test.

But you have to query the importance of this latest story and why it even qualifies as news. The newspapers suggest that there was a potential loss to the Exchequer of €9,000 but I would suggest that if the Polish lad couldn't bring in his cigarettes that way he would simply buy them via the big criminal smugglers here instead and the State would be at fault for creating such a huge false price differential in the first place.

Either way, though, it is 'Buyer Beware'.


Alcohol concern

Excise on wine brought in around €231 million in both 2011 and 2012, according to Department of Finance figures.*

The take for the first nine months of this year was at €174.8 million. The expected boost in trade in the run up to December is likely to bring the final figure well above the €231 million figure by the end of the year. Interestingly, that extra euro on a bottle of wine has raised €45 million in taxes. It suggests that wine consumption here is forty-five million bottles a year. I suspect that the wine drinking population of Ireland is well under one million people, or maybe even as low as a half a million people. That's a lot of 'winos.'

Alcohol is cancer causing, a major contributor to heart disease and obesity, and it the single biggest cause of liver disease in humans. Alcohol which naturally evaporates from your glass is a known Class-1 carcinogen making second-hand alcohol, or the involuntary inhalation of these fumes a health hazard. It has always been known that alcohol can be addictive also. Alcohol Action Ireland estimates that the annual death rate from drink is 1,056. As such, there is certainly a clear case to ban the consumption of alcohol in all public places because of this.

AAI have some other interesting facts to consider. Alcohol-related problems cost Ireland an estimated €3.7 billion in 2007. That is nearly twice the estimate for smoking. Treating alcohol-related injuries and diseases cost the healthcare system an estimated €1.2 billion – around 8.5 per cent of the total annual healthcare budget. Every night 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol-related reasons. Ten per cent of all general in-patient hospital costs, seven per cent of GP costs and up to 30% of emergency department costs are alcohol-related.

It gets worse! An estimated €1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money is spent on dealing with alcohol-related crime, including violence and vandalism. An estimated €527 million is lost on alcohol-related absenteeism and accidents in the work place. Beyond the immeasurable human costs, each fatal car collision is estimated to cost the state €3 million. In 2007, alcohol-related road collisions cost an estimated €526 million. A 30% reduction in alcohol-related harm would save taxpayers an estimated €1 billion a year, according to the Chief Medical Officer of Ireland

We read reports regularly that our consumption of alcohol has reached crisis proportions and then, often in the same week, there are other reports pointing to a fall in consumption of alcohol. So much for reports then. But there is no doubt that it is a health crisis and a massive financial drain on all of us. And it is all totally unnecessary, that's the stupid thing about it. The act of drinking alcohol is utterly senseless and unnecessary. Pure alcohol is a deadly poison that renders the drinker impaired after even one dilute glass of beer, according to the National Roads Authority. Why would any half-thinking adult ever drink a drop of it?

If alcohol were to be exposed to a single ray from the spotlight that is currently focussed on tobacco there would be some drastic changes. For example, a bottle of average wine in the off-license would cost about €50. The pint in the local would go for €12-15. Due to secondhand alcohol fumes your drink would come with a lid on it and you would have to go outside the door to take a sip. Extreme health fanatics would begin to complain that you should not be allowed to stand so close to the pub as well. Others would complain bitterly about the mess you make, hospitals might refuse to see you if you smell of it, and employers would be encouraged not to hire you if you drank. Drinking in front of teenagers would be denormalised and, of course, alcohol would ever be available on trains or planes either.

Has anyone got an appetite for all of that? Does Stubbs Reilly have a duty of care? Why are the ICS and the IHF so mute on the subject? How can Diagio be allowed the abomination of 'Arthur's Day?' What about our precious children etc etc?"


Political foreplay?

Sometimes it seems that even the most tenuous reasons are employed to force smoking into the news.

We know that Stubbs Reilly will cram some tobacco comment onto the front page if the brown stuff hits the propeller elsewhere in his kingdom at any time. But that diverting tactic alone cannot account for the daily diet of tobacco stories we are getting now.

The latest film-flam comes from UCG, an otherwise serious university. Under the heading 'Youth smoking falls from 20% to 12%' the nation learns to its relief that smoking is all but over in this country. Apparently another questionnaire was sent out to chosen teenagers and the results are just in.

Asked to self-report on their own smoking experiences, both of them, or maybe a thousand of them (we are not told), claimed angelically to be celibate when it came to the evils of tobacco. Of course there are always the bad boys who declared they smoked whether they did or not, just to annoy authority. Others probably had a laugh filling out this questionnaire and would probably have liked to put their religion down as 'Jedi' or maybe 'Shakira'.

What baffles the thinking mind is that this lightweight waste of research money should be taken seriously by the newsrooms. Does anyone over 25 believe a single thing those brats admitted to or denied? Are the white coats behind it so confident of getting on the news regardless that they have the nerve to put their names to horseshit like this? And what of the journalists, programme producers and announcers? Where do they see the sense in this story knowing, as they must, that it is a non-news piece of fabrication?

But maybe the heavy hand of Stubbs is behind it after all. Rumour has it that the HSE has overrun its budget by a cool billion this year alone and the portly one is going to need a hell of a diversion in the coming days running up to the Budget lest he finds himself promoted sideways.

Hints of an imminent re-shuffle must having him scampering wildly for a success story of his own and who better than the usual suspect, the smokers, as a juicy ass for him to kick. It will be big news after all when he does finally get drop-kicked out the front door of the Dail so maybe film-flam like this is just the political foreplay before the main event.

Politics is indeed a dirty business!


O'Meara gets away with it again

On Tuesday I debated live with Kathleen O'Meara of the Irish Cancer Society.

This morning she was on the air again promoting the idea of plain packaging as a benefit to society at large.

On Morning Ireland Kathleen maintained that the tobacco companies are "Recruiting 50 new smokers a day to replace those who have died or quit every day."

I wrote this down for a reason. The tactic always employed by anti-smokers is the use of fabricated figures to set the agenda for the debate. They do it at the very beginning to ensure there can be no defence. They appear to have settled on a mortality rate of 5,200 from smoking and they now all parrot this without interruption.

The tactic though is only effective when the figures are believed or accepted. This is particularly true in the media. It should be the job of a professional journalist to test the veracity of the figures given before allowing them to be a part of any debate but, sadly, this is never done.

HIQA, the hospital's admission system, doesn't record who smokes and who doesn't so the hospitals don't know if the dying patient ever smoked. No death certificate states 'cause of death' as smoking, either primary or secondary. The Central Statistics Office does not even have an illness category called smoking. So where does the uncontested number of 5,200 come from? And what about the numbers quitting? What is the ICS basing its conjecture on?

They are in a unique position to pronounce on this as they have been given the sole responsibility to operate the national quitlines on behalf of the HSE and the only treatment they recommend is pharmaceutical nicotine or NRT products which cost a fortune and have a failure rate internationally of 87 per cent. The 13 per cent success rate refers to anyone who can go off cigarettes for 30 days and if they go back smoking then it is still counted as a success.

This didn't stop Kathleen adding that the number of people smoking in Ireland is now 22 per cent, a fall of 91,350 smokers since the previous figure not four months ago. And yet her own figures this morning point to a fall that of size taking seven years to achieve. Typically, she was allowed to make all these wild claims without interruption, ensuring checkmate before the 'debate' even began.

Having set the scene with the above disinformation, Kathleen then attacked tobacco marketing in the guise of attractive packets and how plain packaging is working in Australia. What does "working" mean and how could they know after a few months anyway?

She cited some questionnaire they ran on 15 and 16-year-olds and their cigarette buying trends. Forgive me for bringing this up but it is illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under 18, unless you are a criminal already, of course. Put simply, there is not a single shred of credible evidence, anywhere in the world, that shows plain packaging makes one whit of difference to young people purchasing tobacco and conjecture or fabrication are no basis for legislation.

What struck me was the fawning subservience of the Morning Ireland presenter. If I had been on and contested even one of the above fabrications, that same presenter would have eaten me alive. So much for public broadcasting and balanced and even presentation.


How's that for timing?

Don't ya just love a bit of irony.

I've just got back from Dublin and this morning's TV3 interview and I read this in the Journal.ie:

Approximately nine million cigarettes with a retail value of €4.3 million were seized by gardaí and customs officials in Co Louth this morning.

How's that for timing? And we have to remember that this is only a single load that got caught. How much more of the illegal stuff is getting in? And, of course, if it was found in Co Louth you can bet your sweet ass that some group with IRA in its name is behind it. Can you also guess what they planned to do with the proceeds?

Another 60 cents on the shop price will delight these balaclavas and motivate them to double their smugling efforts. If Customs are right and this little lot originated in Malaysia, then the smugglers probably paid 30 cent a pack. If they sold them at €3 a pack here instead of the €10 price in the shops, they'd shift nine million of them in no time and bring in a cool €1,215,000 in profit (less expenses, arf, arf). Money like that would buy you a lot of mayhem if you were so inclined and there's plenty more where that came from.

It puts that silly girl in the TV studio this morning into perspective though, doesn't it?


Breakfast briefing

I was on TV3 this morning.

I was on Ireland AM debating with Kathleen O'Meara of the Irish Cancer Society. Her employers want the Finance Minister to put up the price of a pack of cigarettes by 60 cents in the forthcoming budget.

Over the last ten years these so-called charities have demanded up to two euro to be added on budget day, and with some success too. We Irish have the dubious distinction of having the highest priced tobacco in the EU, twice the average. A full 80 per cent of the price of any tobacco here goes to the government and the remaining 20 per cent is shared out between the stakeholders who do all the work. 

These debates tend to be firmly based on dishonesty, in my opinion. The core argument for high pricing is that it reduces demand and therefore the number of people who smoke. Over successive budgets, as the price has increased, so have the numbers smoking, from 23.5 per cent to 31 per cent in six years of price increases. But Kathleen always says that endless research shows the increased pricing policy reduces consumption.

That is intuitively true of any commodity, of course. If you slapped an 80 per cant increase on bread, for example, I daresay the sliced pan would become reserved for special occasions. What is omitted, though, is that crazy price rises encourage illegal activity by creating the profit motive for criminals. As a result of blind adherence to health tyranny we now have the biggest per capita incidence of smuggled tobacco in the EU. This is hardly news in any area in the country and yet the tobacco control industry constantly denies the truth of it.

With regard to our debate on TV3 this morning, it seemed straightforward. Kathleen would first make all the usual pints, which she did, then I would point to the counter-productive nature of it. That, you would reckon, was how it should play out and the viewers could make up their own minds. 

But while one side of the story was actively encouraged by what should have been an impartial presenter, I was constantly interrupted and baited. It became very difficult to make even the simplest point, but I kept my composure nevertheless.

It occurred to several times to say to the young lady, "If you want me to answer that question please allow me to do so." That approach, though, ran the risk of positioning the 'smoker's champion' as a cantankerous crank when the opposite is true! As a result, an argument that I should perhaps have won, ended all square.

But it takes the biggest anti-smoker I know to make sense of this morning's broadcast. The current Mrs Mallon wryly observed that even before I spoke the presenter was obviously in the other camp. When I got home she told me she knew I was in for a bad time before the cameras even turned to me. According to her it was a male-female thing, pure and simple. On the sofa in front of the presenter was a large hairy male and, next to him, a demure helpless female.

Click here and judge for yourself.


Denormalisation is unethical

Last month we read that:

People in Ireland are spending more money on alcohol despite the chronic financial crisis that continues to grip the nation, official figures have revealed. Figures from the Central Statistics Office showed around €6.36bn was spent on alcohol – up 1.2% from the year before.

What interests me is that I read somewhere else that the combined pub alcohol sales nationwide stands at about €3bn and if that's right then we drink more in off-sales than on-sales. Perhaps the smoking ban social engineering project is working after all.

However the article went on to say that:

While spending on alcohol, as calculated by the CSO at current market prices, increased each year from 2009, spending on tobacco was down in 2012. It dropped by 2.4 per cent from €2.2 billion in 2011 to €2.14 billion last year.

Of course that does not include the legal stuff we bring in from abroad nor the illegal stuff available on street corners everywhere. The retailers estimate that to be another 30% onto the above figure which would show a net increase in smoking in Ireland yet again.

In conversation with a budding young pharmacist a few weeks ago I talked about the side effects of medication. He confirmed what I always knew, that any prescribed medicines carry risks. "Everything we sell has had a risk benefit analysis done," he assured me.

I felt the need later to learn more about the nature of a risk benefit analysis. As you would expect, it sets out to show that the benefits outweigh the risk and I confirmed this on many prestigious sites.

But a footnote on many of them caught my eye too. It stated that, "It is not ethical to conduct a study in which an individual or a group is labeled so as to be stigmatized or to be made less employable or insurable."

Hang on, I thought, denormalisation of smokers is all about stigmatizing us for our habit. A stigma is defined as "A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person." Does that sound familiar to smokers out there?

By the definition of their own best practice, research that denormalises the ordinary smoker is not ethical. Certain "respectable charities" in this country are very supportive of anything that marginalizes, segregates or otherwise treats the smoker as a third class citizen.

The HSE too, that bastion of all that is wholesome and correct, would like to ban smokers even outside their hospitals. Meanwhile we learn that:

Statistics from the Nursing and Midwifery Board (NMBI) published by irishhealth.com show that between 2006 and 2010, 115 fitness to practice inquiries were carried out. A total of 39 of these cases involved drug or alcohol abuse by the nurses and midwives involved. Of these, 28 involved drug abuse and 11 alcohol abuse. All of these cases also included allegations of professional misconduct.

See Drug and alcohol abuse by nurses exposed (Irish Examiner).

Mind you,given what they have to see and deal with every day, I'm just surprised that a hip-flask is not part of the crisp white uniform.


Consumers will decide what they want to drink, not the ad men or politicians

As I watched Liverpool FC coast to victory last weekend over Manchester United, it occurred to me that I have been a supporter of Liverpool Football Club for over 40 years now.

That support became more active when their weekly games became available to me on my own televison. For most of that viewing, Liverpool were sponsored by Carlsberg.

But I grew up with rugby and played it as well. The arrival of the professional game spawned Munster Rugby and the European competition became the Heineken Cup. At the same time, while being a regular beer drinker, the combined red jerseys of Liverpool and Munster have never tempted me to switch to either Carlsberg or Heineken. I know lads who swear by one or the other, but I have long ago chosen my preferred tipple. Indeed, Munster is sponsored by Toyota, but I have never owned one of their cars myself.

That is why the proposed ban on drinks sponsorship for sports is so baffling to me. Guinness has sponsored the All-Irelands for years yet I'd rather drink my own piss than down a glass of that black shite. But I do love All-Ireland day.

The rationale for a ban appears to be that should any member of the unsuspecting public actually see an ad for any of the above products, particularly on match day, they will be immediately hypnothised into parting with their cash. The mere mention of the word Carlsberg will have the mammies slinging the children's allowance about with gay abandon.

Well, I don't think so. I believe that on the rare occasions these days that you do find disposable cash in your pocket, you are very discerning about exactly what you dispose it on. The ad-man creates the awareness of an alternative product but the paying customer calls the shots at the end of the day. I have gone to the Guinness Jazz Festival where only Guinness products are available in all of the venues and have sipped a glass of Carlsberg to be sociable. But I have a few pints of what I like afterwards elsewhere.

The namby-pambies in society argue that the mere sight of a drinks ad at a sporting event sends out the wrong message. But for the supporter of any team, a few drinks in good company is an integral part of match day all over the world. As a schoolboy I remember being aware of the very best of Dublin society in the stands at Landsdowne Road, sipping from their hip-flasks as Ireland took on all-comers. Meanwhile, on the terraces, the riff raff on either side of me drank beer and ale from bottles. Neither party were doing the same the following Monday morning in their respective workplaces, though.

So it appears to be down to the very people who would never be seen dead at such a sporting occasion to decide what is normal behavior and what isn't. It's the same with smoking. Those same people would never dream of rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed on the terraces but want to see smoking banned there anyway. And if the drinks ban for sporting events should mean some clubs end up disappearing altogether, the people responsible couldn't care less.

The health and welfare of the riff raff is not their responsibility, but their careers certainly are.


Smoking at work

Lately I have been reading complaints about smoking work-breaks in blogs all over the place.

Perhaps there is an element of trolling going on but the levels of vitriol aimed at smokers who take a break for a fag outside of their workplace appears to be genuine in many quarters.

Work is an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result. The measure of work done in the modern workplace is called productivity, or the rate of good output per person. The criticism of the smoker is based on their being outside the workplace for the four to five minutes of a cigarette and therefore not producing any output during that time, good or bad.

However today most unthinking repetitive work is done by machines and more complex tasks that require thought are reserved for the humans. If your job involves sitting in front of a computer, (as so many are today), then you need to be conscious of what you are viewing and keying in at all times. The necessity to consider what you are doing demands that you stop and think regularly. You can think almost anywhere, even outside the building. Conversely, is the non-smoker sitting seething at an idle keyboard being unproductive?

David McWilliams makes a compelling case for 'napping at work' as it gives a massive boost to productivity levels. It is a logical read if you follow it to the end and begs yet another question as well. How resentful and intolerant would you be if the person at the keyboard beside you, on the same salary as you, was fast asleep? How much time would you waste on that feeling of resentment? Could you concentrate at all that day, thinking that the workload is all on your shoulders?

I have debated live on radio with outraged non-smokers who complained bitterly about the added workload they had while the smokers were outside. One man I spoke to was particularly aggrieved. He may have had a point and he may not in that particular instance. But it never occurred to him that the smokers would have preferred if they could have had their cigarette indoors while they worked. I've done that for years myself. Nor indeed does it occur to the outraged non-smoker inside that the smoker outside might be considering just how lazy the non-smokers are themselves, even as they sit in judgement of him or her.

Countless scientific studies have shown that a smokers concentration levels rise dramatically after a cigarette. It is a side-effect of an otherwise risky habit and is in no way a justifiable reason to take up smoking. But when the smokers return from their breaks, their thinking should be sharper and it might be true to suggest that a break in the open air might have helped also. Very often though when you encounter an unusual problem on your screen that stumps you, you are better off to step away from it for a while and consider it from a new angle in a different environment.

In the end we all consider ourselves to be the sharpest tool in the toolkit and individual productivity levels are not normally judged by the individual themselves. Good management should let you know where you are in that pecking order, whether you smoke or not. On a lighter note, it has been recorded that females take more bathroom breaks in a day than males, and spend longer at it too. Any of you lads up for making an issue of that?


Reilly gets a dose of his own medicine

Well, I'm shocked, shocked and stunned.

You see, Irish Health, that bastion of all things healthy and decent in Ireland, asked site visitors how they rated the performance of Dr Reilly, who has now been Minister for Health for two-and-a-half years.

I have said here for some time now that when Stubbs Reilly sniffs a problem or a brewing scandal anywhere in his portfolio, he quickly averts public attention by announcing a new round of persecution for we smokers. But he won't fool anyone with this damning verdict on his tenure to date.

In offering very luke warm plaudits for, as Irish Health puts it, "Some success on the public health front in trying to push through tough anti-smoking, anti-alcohol abuse and anti-obesity measures, and he did help to to steer through the abortion legislation", the actual result of the poll would have any normal human being scrabbling for a resignation letter.

Effectively, this is his peer review of his time in office from the medical and health communities, and 83 per cent of them "Rated the Minister's performance as poor". This is not a poll done by Forest Eireann. This is on a highly respected and hugely popular website, subscribed to by anyone who's anyone in the caring professions.

And if you think that's bad, only 3% rated his performance as 'good.' Three out of every one hundred persons he presides over can only drag themselves to a soft defense of the bearded one. That has just got to be the ASH faithful.

But his litany of disgraceful failures and botch-ups is catalogued in black and white at Irish Health, for your further enjoyment.

It does pose the question though when this bully inevitably steps aside, as he most surely must, who is there among the shrinking violets in Leinster House who would be capable of facing the real health issues without condensing every issue there down to smoking?


Charities: review of tax status is a start but it doesn't go far enough

Scanning the headlines this morning, one of them hopped off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes: 'Tax status removed from 651 charities', it read.

Wow! I thought, I wonder if the Revenue boys have finally copped on to the smoker-haters masquerading as caring charities. Sadly, though, a list of 651 – ahem – 'carers' with their names at the top did not materialize so we do not learn who got the chop.

But what did turn up was the staggering fact that there are 8,000 registered charities in this country. If you were to pledge €5 to each one of them for a year it would cost you €40,000. There is one charity for every 560 citizens in the State. We are either a very generous people or the most stupid in the world.

Registered charities in Ireland are exempt from income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, DIRT tax, capital acquisitions tax and stamp duty, according to the tax code. While required to keep annual accounts, these are not automatically checked by the Revenue Commissioners but must only be available on request.

Most surprising of all, according to the Revenue website, "There is no legal framework for the registration of charities in Ireland". Once charitable status is granted (for whatever reason), a charity does not even have to apply for tax exemption. They can assume that they have it and just carry on. In fact, some faceless civil servant decides who gets the lolly and who does not. With the millions in public money, given to these charities each year by Government, and the further millions they collect from the public directly on the streets, it is shocking that such secrecy and lack of transparency can be given to these faceless charities.

The larger more prominent charities are simply tax-free vehicles who front vested interests by lobbying ministers on their particular cause. That many of these ministers use Department money to fund the charities in the first place is the real scandal here. Smokers in Ireland are all too familiar with this ruse because the minister in question is taking your huge tobacco taxes and giving some of it to a 'charity' whose sole purpose is to persecute and alienate you for smoking. The top people on these gravy trains are paying themselves in excess of €100,000 a year.

The Irish Times article hints at the possible appointment of a 'Charity Regulator" to address the problem. I respectfully suggest that a political appointment such as that would be as effective as the bank regulator once was. But doubtless the lucky lady or man who is handed this job will also receive a lofty title that means nothing and €100,000+ a year to do absolutely nothing.

If they gave it to me I would immediately cancel all 8,000 charitable status designations and start again. They could all re-apply of course and I would look at each one on its own merit. My benchmark would be, "An organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need", Lobbyists need not apply of course and all future funding to any newly registered charity would be strictly performance based.

Taxpayers out there would start to get value for money in return for their generousity. Any objections to that?


Is Champix a cause for concern?

I have written before about the conflict of interest between the Irish Cancer Society, their financial assistance from Pfizer, and their appointment to run the Smokers Quitline on behalf of the Government.

In this context it would be difficult not to imagine that employees of the Quitline are encouraged to tell callers to buy the Pfizer drug Champix as the ideal aid to quitting smoking.

However, I have read many reports from around the world, from Canada in particular, about the severe side effects of this drug with the instance of suicides and psychotic episodes being widespread. As always with the internet, we need to be careful as to the truth about much of the postings.

For example, this report makes chilling reading. It's from a survivor of Champix and at first reading it seems genuine enough. Yet another, closer to home, is the account of a person in Ireland who takes the Champix course. Though successful this time, the account of the experience is nevertheless harrowing.

Both are enough to make one wary of trying this particular Pfizer cocktail, but neither is definitively damming. However, the proceedings in a courtroom in Birmingham, Alabama, certainly does show something is seriously amiss.

The report of the case shows Pfizer has settled 2,700 lawsuits against it pertaining to the use of Champix, (traded as Chantix in some markets). For the drug maker to pay out $273,000,000 without contesting the claims is tantamount to an admittance of the high levels of risk in using their product.

But the upstanding charity that is the ICS continues serenely to dispense the advice that Champix is the wonder drug of the new century. That's charity for you, I suppose!

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