The smokers' last gasp

British smokers have been passive for too long, say the American tobacco giants. It's time to fight back
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Indy Lifestyle Online
british smokers in general are a mild breed who do not complain too loudly when banished to the chairless, butt-littered, windowless cupboard in the basement that has been designated the smoking room. When there isn't even a smoking room, they accept that it is their lot to shiver on the pavement outside the office. They are resigned to being politely asked to retire to the patio at dinner parties, even if it's snowing. American smokers have similarly smarted under ever more Draconian bans - in some American states smoking is restricted to the individual home.

Finally, however, American tobacco giant Philip Morris, the manufacturers of Marlboro cigarettes, has had enough. The first whiff of grapeshot in its new offensive was the hiring of feisty new chairman Geoffrey Bible last year. He immediately launched a flotilla of newspaper ad campaigns, and slammed ferocious lawsuits on the company's detractors. "We are not going to be anybody's punching bag," he says. "When you are right and you fight, you win."

Mr Bible has now begun the attempt to rally British smokers. Philip Morris has launched a Europe-wide national newspaper ad campaign showing smoking employees huddled in the rain. "What sort of policy forces these people outside?" inquires the caption. "The passion to regulate down to the finest details of people's lives can lead to infringements of personal liberty," it adds sternly. At the same time, the company is sponsoring the Fair Cigarette Tax Campaign, which has just completed its first research sweep and is claiming a "massive response" from British smokers who are infuriated at the 77 per cent tax on cigarettes and are now energetically lobbying their MPs.

The battle lines in the cigarette wars, are, however, confused to say the least. "I've never smoked and I don't want to personally, but I wish they would reinstate it in our office," says one office supervisor. "I can never find any of my team because they're always off for a fag break. I reckon I lose each of them for as much as an hour a day."

"We have a non-smoking policy that everyone ignores when they feel like it," retorts a 20-a-day man. "I really wish the ban could be enforced, because I'd smoke a lot less."

Reports of skirmishes abound. "I simply couldn't believe it when my dinner guests turned round and asked me and my husband to stop smoking," spluttered one indignant smoker. "If I was going to their house I wouldn't smoke, but I expect to do what I want in my own home. But I meekly went and stood outside my own back door, puffing away. I love that story about the dinner party where they found everyone smoked except one man, so they made him go outside, but I bet it's not true."

"I was on the beach, out in the air, and some officious trout came and asked me to put my cigarette out. I simply couldn't believe it, but I did," adds another casualty.

Some smokers are definitely getting angry. "Anti-smoking groups are a serious threat to the principle of individual choice. I haven't seen a proliferation of anti-cream cake groups or anti-crossing the road groups, and that's because the majority of people think it's a good idea that they should be allowed to choose whether or not to fur up their arteries or be run over by a bus, if they are willing to take the risk. Somehow smokers are children, who should have that choice taken away from them," says a 10-a-day Marlboro Lite-er.

"I don't mind trains with non-smoking carriages," comments a 20-a-day Silk Cut magnanimously. "In fact I think such things should be taken even further. I would like to have the option of a non-BO carriage, a non-fat- people carriage, and a carriage where people with coughs and colds are banned."

So how does Philip Morris hope to channel this anger? "The point is encouraging public discussion of an issue that is affecting the personal liberty of 100,000,000 European smokers," explains David Greenberg, vice president of corporate affairs. "The principles reach beyond smoking, to all sorts of broader issues of personal liberty. We can bring the issue out into the open - when people are given a chance to think about it and talk about it they can see their own solutions, rather than going for laws and bans." The company is hoping to put a rocket under bureacracy. An earlier ad listed the number of words in Pythagoras's Theorem (24) in the Ten Commandments (179) and in recent European legislation on where and when smoking is permitted (24,942).

But surely things have gone too far to turn around? The battle between smokers and the anti-tobacco lobby has been grinding remorselessly on for nearly 400 years. The first broadside was fired off in 1604 when King James published A Counterblaste to Tobacco; since then the fortunes of war have teetered both ways. Cigarettes fought back and enjoyed a long era of glamour and acceptance, but the antis have had the upper hand for a decade. Last week, British charter airlines agreed to ban smoking on all flights lasting less than six hours, which means that smoking travellers face an irritable beginning and end to their sunshine holidays; another nail in the coffin of coffin nails.

Smoking is no longer tolerated on buses, trains, planes or Tubes. Tobacco advertising has been chipped away at for years and Labour have pledged to ban it altogether should they ever come to power. Many local authorities are making an American-style stand - Birmingham City Council, for example, expects to implement a complete ban on smoking in public places by the year 2000. Most large companies operate an anti-smoking policy as a matter of course - for example, British Telecom's offices have been non-smoking for three years, British Gas has phased in a smoking ban over the last four to five years, city law firm Arthur Andersen does not permit smoking in the office, Barclays Bank has gradually increased restrictions since 1991 to reach a total ban on bank premises at all times (it offers smoking counselling to all employees), and Marks and Spencers staff are allowed to smoke only in designated areas during their breaks - transgressions are a dismissable offence.

Philip Morris's David Greenberg rejects the thought that this could be a brave last-ditch stand. "Most people are reasonably tolerant," he says. "There is only a small percentage of activists. We're upbeat - we're by no means pessimistic."

Marjorie Nicholson, director of Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) agrees. "Smokers are becoming more inclined to speak out - there has always been a feeling that the smoker has to compromise, that they have to accept restrictions. But an increasing number of smokers are taking the view that they have made all the concessions so much and they won't make any more." She believes the new campaign will give outspoken smokers more confidence.

Amanda Sandford of Ash (Action on Smoking and Health), says: "Advertising is powerful - that's why people who are in the business of selling use it. But Philip Morris is trying to muddy the waters by trying to treat smoking as a civil rights issue rather than a health issue. There is no basic right to smoke - it became a social habit before people realised how harmful it was. Smoking restrictions are a safety measure - like wearing a seatbelt in a car." Fighting talk indeed. But ask for the solution, and suddenly diplomacy is the order of the day. So, in an ideal world, what's the answer?

"Courtesy and tolerance on both sides," says David Greenberg of Philip Morris.

"A good dose of common sense with courtesy and tolerance," says Marjorie Nicholson of Forest.

"It's not the people we object to, it's the habit," says Amanda Sandford of Ash. "When people are not smoking, they are just like us. Non-smokers should make allowances for what is, after all, an addiction."

Such sweet reasonableness on all sides! But the battle's not over yet.


Even CHINA, which is the world's largest cigarette producer, and where smoking is the norm, has recently launched an anti-smoking campaign (slogan: "Stop smoking for three years and save enough money to buy an ox.")

Bizarrely, legislation was rushed through prohibiting smoking in public in FRANCE. French smokers ignore it with Gallic insouciance - 40 per cent of men smoke, 27 per cent of women. Anyone asking a Frenchman to stub out his Gauloise is likely to be rewarded with a poke in the snout. Tobacco advertising has been banned since 1993.

GREECE is the heaviest smoking nation in the world - 46 per cent of men smoke, and 28 per cent of women, though the Greeks have the longest life expectancy in Europe. Tobacco advertising is restricted and smoking is not allowed in certain public places, including on public transport. Greece is the only country to (temporarily) avoid an EC Directive reducing maximum tar yields; Greek cigarettes can legally contain up to 15mg tar until the year 2000, and 12mg until 2006.

JAPAN is one of the last bastions of smoking like a chimney, for 65 per cent of the male population at least. Airlines who have cracked down in-flight smoking don't dare tell the Japanese they can't light up. Japanese airlines get round the problem by installing powerful extractor fans above smokers' seats: tough if the smoker also happens to wear a toupee. The Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world, according to WHO.

Regulations in the UNITED STATES vary from state to state. The first thing Hillary Clinton did when she took possession of the White House was to ban smoking. It's also forbidden in military installations, many restaurants and baseball stadiums and all schools. The American Labor Department wants to ban smoking in the workplace. Smoking is forbidden on most trains and in many shopping malls. In at least a dozen instances, parents who smoke have been denied custody of children in divorce cases.

TAIWAN is the first country to ban duty-free cigarette and tobacco purchases.


1604 First tax imposed on tobacco ("stinking fume nearst resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless") by King James I, setting a precedent for the next 400 years.

1962 The Royal College of Physicians publishes its report on the links between smoking and cancer.

1965 Cigarette advertising on television banned.

1969 First non-smoking seats on planes (Finnair led the way). First anti- smoking poster campaign: "Why learn about lung cancer the hard way?" Radio Times bans cigarette advertising.

1971 First non-smoking seats in cinemas. London Transport bans smoking on single decker buses. First anti-smoking TV ad campaign, featuring Fag- Ash Lil.

1972 Tobacco industries agreed to include "health hints" on their packs.

1973 Information on the tar and nicotine in each brand first published.

1976 First anti-smoking campaign aimed at youths.

1977 Tobacco industries agree to drop all advertising of high tar brands, and not introduce any further new brands.

1978 First major article in British Medical Journal suggests passive smoking may be dangerous. Commercial radio advertising banned.

1979 Major post offices become smoke-free.

1980 Tobacco industry agrees to cut expenditure on poster advertising by 30 per cent, and avoid advertising near schools.

1984 First national No Smoking Day.

1985 Smoking banned on London Underground.

1988 Royal Navy stops supplying shore-based staff with cheap cigarettes.

1992 First nicotine patches available on prescription. Former Marlboro Man Wayne McLaren dies of lung cancer, having changed sides and become a fervent anti-smoking campaigner (a second Marlboro Man defector, David McLean, died of lung cancer in 1995).

1993 J D Wetherspoon chain of pubs introduces non-smoking sections.

1994 First non-smoking beach, in Bournemouth.

1995 British charter airlines agree to ban smoking on all flights lasting up to six hours. Philip Morris launches a Europe-wide ad campaign in defence of "smokers' rights".