Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Forest

THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY AND THE HEALTH RISKS OF SMOKING (TB 12)

CREDENTIALS

  1.1  FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) was founded in 1979. We neither promote smoking nor do we deny that smoking is one of many risk factors to individual health. Instead, we defend the rights of adults who choose to smoke tobacco and oppose those who want to discriminate against smokers and prohibit smoking at work and other places.

  1.2  Our chairman is Lord Harris of High Cross and our supporters include journalists, politicans and academics. Friends of FOREST are ordinary smokers and tolerant non-smokers who share our views. FOREST spokesmen are frequently quoted in newspapers and on radio and television. On behalf of smokers we have written thousands of letters, conducted at least as many interviews and almost single-handedly defended smokers' rights.

  1.3  Our objectives are to promote equal rights for smokers and greater tolerance between smokers and non-smokers; to defend freedom of choice for adults who wish to smoke tobacco and the rights of those who wish to make provision for smokers on their premises; to increase public awareness of the scientific complexities of the smoking debate and to help people put the issue in its proper perspective; and to oppose descrimination against smokers wherever it may occur.

  1.4  Although FOREST accepts donations from tobacco companies, we have no interest in either the sale or the promotion of any tobacco product. We do not advertise their products, provide brand information, promote smoking among any age group, or speak on behalf of or in defence of the tobacco industry or companies that constitute or are associated with it.

  1.5  Part of our work relates to policies on smoking in the workplace. Requests for advice and information come from employers and employees. We are also called upon to respond to inquiries concerning access to treatment on the NHS, employee rights, custody and fostering cases, and travel. Primarily, however, we are a wholly independent office concered to defend the interests of adult smokers by actively lobbying journalists, broadcasters and politicians. It is in this role that we make this submission in response to a request by the Health Committee.

 THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY AND THE HEALTH RISKS OF SMOKING

  2.1  FOREST does not represent the tobacco industry (see 1.4 above) nor have any of our staff ever worked for the tobacco industry. We therefore have no knowledge or evidence of any "action the tobacco industry has taken . . . in response to the scientific knowledge of the harmful effects of smoking and the addictive nature of nicotine." Our interest in this inquiry lies solely in clarifying "the role of government in providing consumer protection."

ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN PROVIDING CONSUMER PROTECTION

  3.1  Since the 19th century it has been widely accepted that consumers have a right to accurate information about consumer products, including ingredients and standards of performance (where they can be measured). We therefore accept that government has a role to play in protecting the consumer, in particular ensuring that advertising and product labelling are both accurate and informative.

  3.2  We strongly believe that accurate labelling is central to free consumer choice. We regret that government health warnings do not always recognise the difference between propaganda and accurate scientific truth, especially with respect to the effect of "passive smoking" (non-smokers breathing other people's tobacco smoke) which remains unproven. Special pleading, such as salesmen use in advertising and other promotional material, should have no place in government-inspired product labelling or other government-funded literature.

  3.3  Government defends its intrusion into the smoking debate on the grounds that the public has to be informed about the health risks associated with smoking. We accept that government has a role providing the public with information, as with BSE etc. However, after 40 years of government and other publicly funded campaigns, there can be few adults in Britain who are not aware that there are some health risks associated with smoking.

  3.4  Accordingly, adults should be allowed to make up their own minds about whether or not they wish to start—or continue—smoking. All that is now justified is a government warning on tobacco products. For example: "People who smoke do so at their own risk of damaging their health." Any attempt to intensify government warnings will be (a) a wasteful use of taxpayers' money, and (b) counter-productive because it will provoke disbelief and "warning fatigue" (see 7.1).

  3.5  If smoking tobacco does involve a risk to health, it should be for consumers to judge whether they wish to take that risk, as with driving a car, flying an aeroplane or indulging in a wide range of sporting activities. They can take advice, read articles and consult medical opinion. In a free society consumers should then be allowed to draw their own conclusions, without government intervention, just as we all decide about the dangers of using kitchen knives or electric chainsaws, or going skiing or taking up karate or even having sex.

  3.6  It is hard for non-smokers fully to understand that smoking brings pleasure to a great many people. A culture dominated by people who ignore, or oppose, pleasure (a culture, that is, dominated by puritans) is sure to be a miserable culture. In a free society, government must ask itself—are we really in the business of denying pleasure to such a large number of people? Our view is that, beyond providing simple public information, government should keep out of people's lives and allow them to choose their own lifestyle, on condition that they stay within the law and within accepted boundaries of social behaviour.

DISINFORMATION: HOW GOVERNMENT CAN MISLEAD THE CONSUMER

  4.1  While we accept that government has a role in providing information, politicians too often abuse that position with blatant disregard for facts which are far more complex than slogans allow.On a scientific level, the smoking debate is highly complex. It is disingenuous for government to pretend otherwise. Yet on a whole range of tobacco-related issues (and motivated, no doubt, by a desire to "protect" the consumer) government does precisely that.

  4.2  For example, to single out 16 cancer and pulmonary diseases as "smoking-related" obscures the FACT that two-thirds of the population—smokers and non-smokers alike—are destined to die of them, mostly in their late seventies and eighties. No objective doctor would deny the FACT that, apart from smoking, diet, genes and lifestyle are major factors in cancer and heart conditions.

  4.3  With respect to "passive smoking", government disinformation is even more pronounced. This, in spite of the FACT that the scientific establishment has found it impossible to reach agreement on this issue.

  4.4  In America a landmark report by the Environmental Protection Agency designed to show the harmful effects of "passive smoking" was overturned in court. In 1998 the World Health Organisation admitted that the increased risk of non-smokers getting lung cancer through "passive smoking" is not "statistically significant". Most recently, in July 1999, the Health and Safety Commission in Britain declared that proving "beyond reasonable doubt that passive smoking is a risk to health is likely to be very difficult, given the state of scientific evidence." Such FACTS are very difficult, given the state of scientific evidence." Such FACTS are very different from the glib propaganda promoted by the anti-smoking lobby.

  4.5  The "passive smoking" argument has two very clear objectives—one, to demonise the consumers of a legal product and, two, to coerce employers into introducing a ban on smoking at work. In the absence of scientific proof on "passive smoking", we believe that neither objective is compatible with a tolerant, democratic society.

 GOVERNMENT ROLE IN COERCING CONSUMERS TO GIVE UP SMOKING

  5.1  The anti-smoking lobby makes much of the finding that 70 per cent of smokers wish to give up. Even if we ignore the effect of exaggerated health warnings, what people tell pollsters is quite different from how they behave in practice. If adult consumers genuinely wish to give up smoking that is their choice—it is no business of politicians who are known to indulge their own weaknesses.

  5.2  In particular, we deplore government coercion and social engineering whereby consumers of a legal product are forced to abstain by codes of practice or other regulations which incite employers to ban smoking at work or send smokers on smoking cessation courses.

  5.3  We strongly believe that offices, pubs and restaurants should be allowed to devise—in consutltation with the workforce—a smoking policy best suited to their customers and employees, without government intervention.

GOVERNMENT ROLE IN PROTECTING UNDER AGE CONSUMERS

  6.1  We fully accept that, as with alcohol, government has a role in preventing children from obtaining tobacco products, on the grounds that they are not able to make a mature and reasoned judgement on the merits of such products. For children there is a role for protective paternalism but not for adults.

  6.2  However, the idea that children are not already universally exposed to warnings against smoking is absurd. In addition to constant reminders on television, radio and in the press, they are given information at school. Indeed children are often coerced into `voluntary' anti-smoking campaigns. Agent provacateur activities against tobacconists and harassment of smoking parents in a way ominously reminiscent of George Orwell's `Junior Anti-Sex League' in 1984.

  6.3  Common sense would strongly suggest that the more smoking is attacked by earnest politicians and government-funded bodies, the more attractive it becomes to young people. After all, when the Estabishment (ie grown-ups) universally opposes smoking—and smokers—what better way to rebel than to light up?

GOVERNMENT ROLE CAN BE COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE

  7.1  As indicated above (6.3), excessive interference by government in consumer affairs can actually be counter-productive. A 1999 report by the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford spoke of the public acquiring "warning fatigue", and it is not fanciful to suggest that the increased number of under-age smokers in Britain may be the result of unbelievable warnings by government and other taxpayer-funded bodies. The same might apply to adult smokers. Over the past year, for the first time in almost 30 years, their number has begun to increase.

 TOBACCO ADVERTISING AS A CONSUMER ISSUE

  8.1  On 10 December 1999 the British government proposes to introduce, two years ahead of schedule, an EU Directive banning tobacco advertising. Far from bringing forward this unheralded foray into censorship, we believe that politicians have no business banning the promotion of a legal product. We would argue that government is here taking on the role of "nanny" to the British public that is well outside its remit in a free and democratic society.

  8.2  Worse, by attempting to "protect" consumers, we believe that government intervention will disadvantage them. For example, banning tobacco advertising will make it more difficult for consumers to receive legitimate product information which allows them to choose between competing brands.

  8.3  In addition, such censorship must also discourage manufacturers from developing new brands, including so-called "safer" cigarettes, because the motivation to develop such products will be reduced if companies no longer have the ability to market them properly. Filters and low-tar cigarettes are just two innovations that have appeared since the health risks of smoking tobacco were first publicised.

  8.4  Ironically, given the prominent health warnings on all tobacco advertisements, the ban will reduce exposure to all such warnings in newpapers, magazines and billboards the length and breadth of the country. Much research confirms that bans do not reduce smoking which flourished, for example, in the USSR before 1989 when advertising was completely absent.

SUMMARY

  9.1  FOREST accepts that government has a role in consumer protection. However, a more corrosive danger far greater to a free society than exaggerated health risks is the threat to freedom of choice and individual responsibility represented by the anti-smoking movement and supported by politicians of all parties. "Consumer protection" does not justify the massive deployment of propaganda, intimidation and coercion in place of true information and persuasion.

  9.2  Adults are now very well aware of the health risks associated with smoking. We believe that beyond maintaining public awareness of the possible health risks of tobacco, alcohol, contaminated beef etc, government has no business lecturing and/or coercing consumers to give up. Such action is an abuse of taxpayers' money and could well prove counter-productive.

  9.3  We deplore the government's decision to ban tobacco advertising as an unwarranted attack on the rights of adult consumers to receive information abou a legitimate consumer product.

  9.4  We support government attempts to stop chidren buying tobacco products but deplore any attempt to use children as a pretext for dramatically curbing the rights of adult consumers.

  9.5  We are concerned that, far from "protecting the consumer" (most of whom don't wish or require to be protected), this inquiry by the Health Committee is an attempt to justify further restrictions on adult smokers in the name of "saving " them from their own "folly", which is a most dangerous delusion for politicians in a free and diverse society.

  9.6  Finally, we urgently call attention to the danger that the real agenda is to increase government intervention in the lives of consenting adults and extract even more money from British smokers who already pay over 80 per cent on tobacco products and consequently contribute over £10.25 billion a year to the Treasury.

September 1999


 
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