Great wheeze, Marjorie

Kathy Marks meets the people at Forest, who are paid to think of ideas why smoking isn't so bad after all
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The Independent Online
BY RIGHTS, the folk who run Forest, the tobacco industry pressure group, should be hoisting the white flag. Every month brings a new report on the health risks of smoking, and fresh curbs on those who cling to the habit. Last week, as if the political row over sponsorship were not bad enough, British Airways extended a smoking ban to the whole of its fleet.

But the people who spend their working lives defending one of the world's most unpopular causes are defiantly cheerful. "I love my job," says Martin Ball, one of three full-time employees. "I bounce to the office every day. If there are negative stories in the news, it just means harder work at the coalface."

Wreathed in smoke, Marjorie Nicholson, the group's director, and Juliette Wallbridge, campaigns manager, nod. They see themselves as civil libertarians, opponents of a creeping health fascism - "ashism", they call it. They scoff at the idea that they are fighting a losing battle. "There's less hostility now towards smokers than a few years ago," says Marjorie. "There's a feeling that it's all gone too far. I don't think we're heading the way of America. The British have a strong sense of fair play."

Forest - which stands for Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco - was set up in 1981. Their fourth-floor offices in Victoria, central London, are showing signs of wear. The brown carpet helps camouflage the worst cigarette burns, but the wallpaper, a delicate shade of nicotine, is peeling in places.

The debate has passed through several stages since the organisation was formed as a counter-weight to the lobby group Ash, Action on Smoking and Health. From a simple defence of tobacco as a legal product in the early days, Forest moved into the health arena in the mid-1980s, commissioning research aimed at undermining the medical evidence.

Now its energies are directed towards seeking solutions to conflicts, finding ways for smokers and non-smokers to live together in harmony. Marjorie produces the group's latest wheeze, a pocket ashtray. This is a vinyl, foil-lined pouch in which butts can be extinguished and disposed of. "Smokers have to clean up their own mess," she declares. Like a pooper- scooper, I suggest. Marjorie looks pained.

All three are the soul of reasonableness. Yes, smoking may be harmful, they concede, but so are lots of things. They question the methodology of medical research. While agreeing that passive smoking is the antis' most powerful weapon, they dismiss the recent British Medical Journal report as a rehash. Hate mail is politely answered.

There are just two subjects that get a frosty reception. One is the fact that Forest is funded mainly by the tobacco industry. "It doesn't affect the strength of our arguments," says Juliette, lighting up another Benson & Hedges. She and Marjorie refused to be photographed smoking, in case they were accused of promoting the product. Martin is a non-smoker. "I've somehow managed to resist peer pressure and the blandishments of the industry," he says.

The other touchy subject is Ash. "The people running Ash could just as easily ban the public consumption of alcohol," says Martin. "They're control freaks. They don't drink, they don't smoke, they eat lots of vegetables and go to bed early."

Forest championed the cause of 60 smokers on the London to Brighton line whose habit of commandeering the non-smoking buffet car was stopped after many years. A number of prosecutions are pending. Forest's chairman, Lord Harris of High Cross, accused the then British Rail of scorning its customers. "They had smoking carriages for 150 years," he said. "BR is indicted of skulduggery."

Forest is planning a weekend in Amsterdam, where members will attend a conference of smokers' rights groups from all over the world. They have also launched the 659 Campaign, aimed at ensuring that every MP's constituency surgery is visited by a smoker.

In a back room, 78-year-old Judith Hatton spends two days a week filing the medical reports, cigarette drooping from her mouth. "I don't believe most of what I read," she says. "I've smoked for 50 years. I'm not planning to stop now."