A fag-end of a job

Selling cigarettes is a dirty business but, as the UK tobacco industry's spokesman, John Carlisle's got to do it.
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The Independent Culture
Someone has to do it, I suppose. Or do they? John Carlisle reckons they do. But then he's used to going against the grain. Mr Carlisle rejoices in the title of The Man with the Most Difficult Job in Britain. He is the chief spokesman for the UK tobacco industry, the crowd whom the chairman of the British Medical Association once described as "corporate criminals" and "Public Enemy No 1". Does John Carlisle blanch? He does not. He is made of stronger stuff. Rather, he smiles.

This week, he could afford to smile. He has been at the Tory party conference, schmoozing and boozing and generally glad-handing in an environment - Virginia Bottomley notwithstanding - which is as close to friendly as you get for an industry whose opponents refer to it as pedlars of death.

But, no, there at Bournemouth's classiest hotel, the Royal Bath, the PR men of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association were to be found in public and looking relaxed. Their reception for MPs and the media was proudly emblazoned across the welcome notice in the plush-carpeted foyer. This was only the latest stage in the cigarette industry's "firm but fair" fightback against what is seen as the hysterics of the health lobby. Since John Carlisle became executive director of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (which is funded by Imperial Tobacco, Gallaher, Rothmans and other leading UK cigarette-makers) just over a year ago, it has adopted a far more forceful and litigious line.

It is what might have been expected by those who knew Mr Carlisle in his previous incarnation. Until he resigned at the last general election, he was the controversial Tory MP for Luton North. In his time, he has espoused a whole range of unpopular causes - most famously defending sporting links with South Africa during the apartheid years. (He was known in the Commons as the Member for Johannesburg South.) More recently, he supported the gun lobby, post-Dunblane.

Not that he isn't an amiable chap. The stream of politicians and press people at his champagne cocktail party was a testament to that. A dapper character in his late fifties, Mr Carlisle moved effortlessly among them; suave, urbane, charming and with an edge of self-mockery. The champagne flowed and samples of cigars, cigarettes and tobacco provided by Mr Carlisle's clients littered the tables shamelessly. "If it was the Labour conference they'd all be gone by now," he quipped after quarter of an hour.

Some may think the cigarette industry is on its last gasp. A European directive banning tobacco advertising is expected to be passed in the next Parliamentary session. Poster ads will be banned in June 2000, press ads a year later (TV commercials are already banned). Sponsorship is to be outlawed in 2003, but sponsorship of worldwide events would be allowed to continue until 2006. And the Government's White Paper is due soon.

But there is a new forcefulness in the tobacco industry's response. It has recently won a full judicial review of the report by the Government's Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health which claims that ETS (environmental tobacco smoke, the industry's preferred phrase for passive smoking) causes lung and heart disease. It has just raised a challenge before the European Court of Justice over the EU directive citing an impressive array of objections that the measure is really a health ban masquerading as one of market harmonisation and which therefore violates the right to freedom of expression, property rights such as possession of trademarks, is disproportionate to the problem and breaks the principle of subsidiarity.

The industry seems to have had a measure of success in its lobbying over the forthcoming White Paper which has been twice delayed and which, when it comes out next month, is expected to have diluted its original proposals for making it illegal to smoke in public places.

John Carlisle is close to the heart of all this. "I was taken on because I have the reputation as a streetfighter," he admitted. "My political career was abrasive. I have a natural inclination to rock the boat and rattle the cage."

He is also a master of the political stratagem of discovering convenient excuses for what you want to do anyway. That much was evident from his appearance later that night on Newsnight to defend the move by Benson & Hedges to launch a coffee which it would then advertise under the same name to bypass the forthcoming ban on ads. His technique is not to deny what is said in attacks on the industry but to offer counter-facts. They vary from the apposite to the diversionary. Thus:

FACT: Smoking costs the NHS pounds 1.3bn a year. COUNTER-FACT: But it brings the Exchequer pounds 10.5bn a year in tobacco taxes.

FACT: Most airline passengers want a smoke-free journey. COUNTER-FACT: This is a plot by airlines so they can save fuel by turning down the air- conditioning, reducing the quality of air for everyone.

FACT: official statistics show 120,000 people die every year through smoking. COUNTER-FACT: But 53,000 are over-75 and have passed average life expectancy anyway.

So, I ask, does that mean it is OK for the other 67,000 who die from smoking. Ah well, Mr Carlisle does not necessarily accept that they do... You can go on for ever. Which is what John Carlisle is paid to do.

But is the basis of this mode of debate honest? "It injects some balance," he replies. "It takes the sting out of the other side's argument." But it can end with the reductio ad absurdum of a recent study by the World Health Organisation, which showed a 16 per cent higher risk of lung cancer from passive smoking, but which the industry interpreted as meaning that the WHO calculated smoking could actually protect someone from lung cancer.

"Those who use our product have the responsibility of making up their own minds," said Mr Carlisle. "I don't think that's evasive. It's upfront ."

But it does not address the moral outrage which opponents feel at an industry which sells a product which kills. That is something for which he has no answer. Recently, he was interviewed by a 13-year-old on the subject for Channel 4. Afterwards, the boy's classmates wrote to him. "They were angry letters," he recalled. What did they say? "Oh, that your industry kills people. That if tobacco was discovered today it would be banned. That people become addicted to it..."

But isn't all that true? "It's not true that people become addicted. They may develop a habit, but that is not the same as addiction. If that was the case, how could 11 million people have given up, 90 per cent of them without nicotine substitutes?" I smelt a counter-fact of Clintonesque proportions but decided not to enter the lists.

So what happened? "I wrote an individual letter to each of the kids, answering their points. But some wrote back with some highly vitriolic and vehement letters, obviously instigated by some anti-smoking teacher. That did hurt a bit. But I just accept it's part of the job - personal hatred. I sleep at night, that's no problem. There's an industry - a big employer which has 15 million customers and that gives pounds 600m a year to the Chancellor - and it needs a spokesman. There's a job to be done." And someone's got to do it. Or do they?