Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 610 - 619)




610  Good Morning. Would you please introduce yourselves briefly to the Committee?

  (Mr Clark) I am Simon Clark, Director of FOREST, the smokers' rights group.
  (Mr Swan) My name is David Swan, I am the Chief Executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association and I am accompanied by Chris Ogden, a colleague at the TMA.

611  May I begin by expressing the appreciation of the Committee to you all for your cooperation with our inquiry and for the written evidence you have given us which has been useful in respect of our addressing the issues we are concerned with? May I begin by putting some questions to Mr Clark in respect of FOREST? It might be deemed a philosophical question in some respects, but you use as part of your organisational title the term "freedom" and on a number of occasions in your evidence you also use the term "freedom". Can you for the information of the Committee define what in this context you mean by "freedom"?

  (Mr Clark) Very much so. I am a non-smoker myself but I firmly believe that adult consumers should be allowed to smoke if that is what they wish to do. I believe that Government has a role in informing consumers about the health risks of smoking and as an organisation FOREST has never queried the health risks. We accept there is a risk factor in smoking but we believe, as long as the information is put out there, it is really very much up to adults. We do not believe in patronising adults or telling them how to behave. If that is a lifestyle choice they wish to take then we believe they should be allowed to do that. We feel we represent courteous smokers. We do accept there are times when a smoky atmosphere, for example, can be annoying to some non-smokers. Therefore we do not take the view of some of the more extreme smokers' pressure groups in the States, for example, who believe they can smoke here, there and everywhere. Smokers have to be courteous, but it is a question of tolerance, courtesy and common sense. We very much believe that smoking is not going to go away. It is going to be around for a long time to come and therefore it is a question of accommodating the interests of both smokers and non-smokers. To answer your question, when we talk about "freedom" we believe that adults should have the freedom to smoke a legal product. Clearly if you decide to ban smoking completely and ban tobacco products, it is no longer a legal product and a different situation will occur. From our point of view prohibition will never work; it would be completely counter productive and impossible to police. So smoking is going to be around and we feel that adults should have that freedom as long as non-smokers' interests are taken into account as well.

612  It is probably a question of how one balances the freedoms of the non-smokers and smokers which is perhaps an area we can explore.

  (Mr Clark) Although we are publicised as a smokers' rights group, I tend not to use the word "rights" because I personally do not believe smokers have a right to light up wherever they feel like it. The anti-smoking lobby tend to talk about people having a right to breath clean air. That is unrealistic in a modern industrial society, particularly when you walk round the streets of London with all the car fumes. It is a question of being practical about this and accepting the realities of life rather than going around pontificating about a right to smoke and a right to breathe clean air, which realistically unless you are living on top of the Alps is virtually impossible.

613  I am interested in your definition of "freedom". I have a quote written down here and I cannot remember who came up with it but there are people here with a better educational background than myself who might be able to prompt me on this one. It was a nineteenth century quote, "Your freedom to swing your stick ends where my nose begins". That strikes me as very relevant to the smoking issue, accepting the point you have made about clean air. I do not think I am an extremist in any respect on this issue but it is slightly different when I as somebody, like one or two here, who has smoked in the past do find it quite offensive when in this building and elsewhere, particularly when some of us have to go to the Millbank broadcasting studios, inevitably outside that building in the entrance have to go through clouds of smoke. Where do my freedoms fit in in that situation?

  (Mr Clark) I completely understand. I understand that argument because as a non-smoker myself the last place on earth I would want to sit on a train is the smoking compartment. However, as a non-smoker I firmly believe that smoking compartment should be there, for the simple reason that it does keep the smokers away from the non-smokers. We had a little bit of a run-in with Great Western a couple of weeks ago when they announced that in all their trains, including their five-hour trains from Paddington to Penzance, they were going to abolish their smoking compartment. I just felt that smokers' interests were not going to be helped by that and non-smokers interests were not going to be helped either. When you introduce complete prohibition you will always get a hard core of smokers, whom we do not condone, who will continue to light up anyway. That then gives ordinary courteous smokers a bad name, but it also upsets the non-smokers. On a long-distance train having a separate compartment for smokers seems to be the perfect compromise. We are very much in favour in pubs and restaurants of having smoking and non-smoking areas. There are many cases where at the moment both ourselves and the anti-smoking lobby, groups such as ASH, agree on many areas; we agree that there should be smoking and non-smoking areas in pubs and restaurants. Where I am a bit sceptical about the anti-smoking lobby is that I believe there is a ratchet effect currently in place and although they are arguing at the moment for smoking and non-smoking areas, in a few years' time they will be demanding complete prohibition in pubs. At that point we would say enough is enough. At the moment we are very much in agreement. If we can come to those types of practical solutions which accept the fact that 30 per cent of the British public still smoke, then we need to cater and accommodate smokers. The same thing at work. We have been heavily involved with the Health & Safety Commission. They have been very keen to get our views about the approved code of practice which they are currently looking into. One of the things which concerned us is that they have given employers a range of options and their number one option is to introduce a complete ban on smoking at work. Again, I completely accept the argument that working in a smoky atmosphere can be unpleasant, but it seems to me there are many other options you can introduce before having a complete ban. You can have better air conditioning. Modern air cleaning systems help. Smoking rooms. We completely accept that small businesses maybe do not have the space to have a separate room for smokers and in that case one accepts that there might have to be a complete ban in place. It would not harm many larger companies to have a separate room for smokers. It is a question of being practical. We might sit here and be very holier than thou, saying it is pathetic that smokers cannot get through a day without having a cigarette, but the practicality of the matter is that many smokers do like to have a cigarette during the day, it relaxes them, they enjoy it, it eases tension, stress, all these types of things.

614  We started off with a question about freedoms and respecting each other's rights to certain freedoms and your example of the train arrangements. I travel on a regular basis between my constituency and London and on that train there are smoking compartments. The difficulty is that we cannot contain the smoke in those smoking compartments for the simple reason that the smoke comes down to the other parts of that carriage. I certainly find, if I am in a non-smoking section of that same compartment, that my clothes smell of smoke when I get off the train. My freedom in some respects is affected by the freedom afforded to the smoker. We also have a situation now where increasingly airlines are non-smoking. Some of us had the experience of going on a long haul to the States a little while ago, which was completely non-smoking for a nine hour flight. Would you be unhappy about that? Do you believe that is wrong?

  (Mr Clark) I understand airlines in the sense that in recent years, particularly since the 1970s, the airlines cut costs by reducing the air flow within cabins; this happened during the oil crisis of 1973. It obviously uses up fuel to have air circulating, so they have cut the air circulating in planes. Clearly having just a few rows at the back of the cabin where the smoke can go over non-smokers as well, as a non-smoker I understand it can be a bit annoying at times. I do think you are slightly over-exaggerating the case on trains. I have commuted a lot on long distance trains from Scotland to London and so on. Really I do find that the vast majority of non-smokers are not put out by having a separate compartment; as long as it is separate I simply do not accept that smoke is swirling through from the smoking compartment into the non-smoking areas. I think the vast majority of non-smokers are quite happy with that arrangement. It really is not a big thing. I was not around but one assumes in pubs, for example, in the days of the 1950s when 80 per cent of men smoked and went into pubs that pubs must therefore have been very, very smoky. I really think that in the vast majority of cases those types of pub do not exist any more. Yes, you might find a few around but they do not really exist in the way they did, plus there is choice with regard to pubs. You have chains like Weatherspoons and various others who have introduced a lot of no-smoking areas and that creates choice. If you walk into a pub, most non-smokers are not put out by a little bit of smoke in the atmosphere because these places are not heavily smoky. When you go into a pub, you accept there is going to be a little bit of smoke. Most non-smokers and smokers get on perfectly well whether it is at home or work or at play in the evening. I do think the anti-smoking lobby has tried hard to create a war between smokers and non-smokers which in the real world really does not exist.

  Chairman: One observation, a slight aside, of travelling for nearly 13 years on that train is that some of my colleagues, Members of Parliament, who travelled in the smoking compartment are no longer with us for reasons you perhaps might want to comment on.

Mr Austin

615  On your use of the word "annoyance", that a smoky atmosphere may be an "annoyance", a phrase which was also used by the tobacco manufacturers when they were here, do you not accept that it is more than annoyance and is a positive health risk?

  (Mr Clark) I am not a medical expert; I really cannot comment. I do not want to go down that line because I am not a doctor, I am not a medical expert, I am simply talking here about freedoms, about representing the interests of smokers.

616  Would you accept medical evidence that there is a health risk?

  (Mr Clark) If you want to talk about passive smoking, I am happy to talk about that. I believe that the jury on passive smoking is still out.

617  Despite the medical evidence.

  (Mr Clark) There is evidence which goes the other way as well. I could come up with lots of examples, but only last year the World Health Organisation, which is perhaps the biggest anti-smoking organisation in the world, published a report which purported to show that non-smokers had a 17 per cent increased risk of lung cancer from passive smoking. In their own press release, they admitted that those figures were not statistically significant. We have had examples in America, in Australia, even the Health & Safety Commission in their draft code of practice earlier this year said there was no firm scientific evidence to suggest that passive smoking is harmful to health. It is a debate which is ongoing. It has been going on since 1975 and the case has not been made for passive smoking. I am happy to accept the health risks of primary smoking but the passive smoking argument is that it will go on for a long time yet.

618  Would you accept that tobacco smoke is one of the major triggers, if not a cause but at least a trigger of asthmatic attacks?

  (Mr Clark) I am not a medical expert; I really cannot answer that. I am a layman.

619  If it were, would you call that an "annoyance" to a child or a health risk?

  (Mr Clark) If it were, but it is a hypothetical question. I really do not want to get into the medical debate because I am a layman, I am not a doctor.

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