Tim Lord: Smoking? He's suffering from passive hysteria

The chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association tells Abigail Townsend why the row on puffing in public ain't over till the fat lady sings
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Tim Lord hasn't touched a cigarette in his life. His parents smoked heavily, putting him off from a young age. His own children aren't allowed to smoke, at least not until they are 18, but he would rather they never started.

Nothing unusual in that. Except that Lord, 51, is chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, which represents the UK's multi-billion-pound industry and campaigns vigorously on the sort of issues that guarantee controversy: smoking in public places, passive smoking, the cost to the NHS. His office reeks of cigarettes and is decorated, solely, with pictures of tobacco adverts and packets.

"I have never smoked a single cigarette," says Lord, "but I object to being told what I can or can't do. 'Nanny state' and these sort of thoughts come to mind." He is a confirmed Conservative.

Finding the industry "interesting", Lord left Colgate Palmolive to join British American Tobacco in 1993, before being seconded to the TMA two years ago. The body is funded by Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher as well as BAT, while Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco hold minority stakes.

For the time being, at least, Lord is not having to grapple with litigation - a primarily US preoccupation - but his leadership has still coincided with two crucial issues for the industry: the ban on advertising and the debate over smoking in public places. The latter row raged again last week, with leaked documents suggesting the Government will do a U-turn and make a ban a central plank of its re-election manifesto.

On one side of the debate stand those, such as anti-smoking group Ash and, apparently, the Government, who believe the health of workers and non-smoking customers should be protected by a total ban. Then there is the tobacco industry, with profits to protect, and the leisure sector, which has heard how business has suffered in New York and Dublin, where bans are already in place.

"We tend to be the voice of reasonableness but we find it hard to get our message across," says Lord. "We want more non-smoking areas and cleaner air - we agree with that. It's quite similar to what the antis or Government might be saying - it's just the way of getting there. We think it should be decided by voluntary means. We need to avoid costly, bureaucratic legislation."

Controversially, however, Lord also attacks the hub of the pro campaign's argument - that passive smoking kills. He says research gives passive smoking a statistical risk factor of around 1.25 or 1.3, much lower than the likes of diesel fumes or electromagnetic fields, such as power lines. "The number is not high enough to say there's a real risk involved."

To back up his view, he even digs out a radio interview, admittedly done in 2001, with Sir Richard Doll, one of the first researchers to show the link between smoking and cancer. While a guest on Desert Island Discs, he remarked that the "effects of other people smoking in my presence are so small, it doesn't worry me".

Lord says the medical profession won't listen. "They don't want to hear about it and don't want to publish it. We just don't think the science supports the banning of smoking in public places. Our argument is that this is not significant - you would normally reject these findings."

He concedes it is an unpopular standpoint. "We try to convey it in one-to-one meetings with MPs, and participate in consultation when we're invited. But it's a very difficult view to put across because it's not particularly acceptable. It often falls on deaf ears."

Nor does he buy that other favoured anti-smoking argument, the cost of smoking to the health service. "The industry contributes some £9.7bn to the Exchequer every year. The Government - the NHS - estimates that treating smoking-related illnesses costs about £1.7bn. Now, I wouldn't equate those two numbers, but smokers are not a drain on the NHS."

Lord gives the impression that, for some reason, we have all become unnecessarily hysterical about smoking. The industry took a similar line when it unsuccessfully fought the ban on advertising. It argued that campaigns only encouraged existing smokers to switch brands. As for new smokers, Lord dismisses allegations that the industry targets the young. Instead, he genuinely argues that sane, mature adults will take up an expensive, addictive and potentially lethal habit "because their friends smoke and, socially, it's something that they want to do".

The ban, which came into force last year, was a blow for an industry already suffering waning sales. British volumes started to fall in the 1970s, and although the decline has levelled off in recent years, it is widely accepted that there is no real growth left in the UK.

Better health education has played a part but the biggest factor has been cost, as successive governments have used taxes to deter smokers. The TMA continues to lobby on price: Lord argues that, rather than encourage smokers to buy foreign or smuggled goods, a pack of 20 should be at least £1 cheaper.

"We accept that the politics of knocking a pound off is difficult. But it's a £12bn industry. All the time new smokers come in, and all the time smokers go out. People are able to give it up.

"People talk about addiction. For some I'm sure it's very hard, but for others it's not. It's far too simplistic."

Not that he minds taking a simple approach to his own life. Finding England in the 1970s uninspiring - it was "not a very exciting place to grow up" - he upped sticks and spent the next 20 years moving between posts in continental Europe, the US, Latin America and India.

Now that he is back in the UK, his plans for the future are less focused. He believes he will probably stay at the TMA for another year or two, before returning to BAT, but beyond that, who knows? For the moment, he is happy where he is, the non-smoker fighting the tobacco industry's corner. "Cigarettes have been around for three, four hundred years. As long as everyone understands the risks, then it's a choice that they make. We don't force anyone to smoke."

As one of Silk Cut's famous adverts once pitched itself, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.

BIOGRAPHY: Tim Lord

Born: 10 July 1953.

Education: degree in management sciences, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

Career: 1974: management trainee, HJ Heinz.

1976: Colgate Palmolive, various marketing roles.

1985: associate director, global marketing, Colgate Palmolive.

1988: marketing director, Colgate Palmolive Colombia.

1991: general manager, Colgate Palmolive Dominican Republic.

1992: general manager, fabric care (Europe), Colgate Palmolive.

1993: president and general manager, British American Tobacco, Venezuela.

1996: area director, BAT India.

1997: head of marketing development, BAT.

2002-present: chief executive, Tobacco Manufacturers' Association.

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