All this hype! It's enough to make you light up

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The Independent Online

Can I be the only person who, even though it exists it promote my interests, finds the pro-smoking group Forest absurd? Is it, as Forest would have me believe, that I am as much a victim of anti-smoking propaganda as the dark powers of social control would like me to be?

Can I be the only person who, even though it exists it promote my interests, finds the pro-smoking group Forest absurd? Is it, as Forest would have me believe, that I am as much a victim of anti-smoking propaganda as the dark powers of social control would like me to be?

Or is it just that a pro-smoking organisation that boasts the slogan: "The voice of the smoker, 24 hours a day" invites ridicule. I mean, what kind of poncey smoker can puff away round the clock without losing her voice at least some of the time? Is this smokesperson sucking on Silk Cut Ultra Lights or something equally cop-outy? I think we should be told.

And what kind of name is Forest anyway? However persuasive the arguments of this organisation may be, the fact is that forest fires are not desirable things, and a discarded fag-end is better at starting them than the witch-finder general. Further, not a lot of people know that the word forest has nothing to do with trees, and is actually any open piece of land which plays host to deer. And deer, as any fool knows, never, ever smoke. Ha!

Then there's the incandescent anger and over-the-top hyperbole with which all pronouncements from Forest are delivered. Don't they know that the archetypal fantasy smoker puffs languidly while delivering devilishly witty and irresistibly nihilistic one-liners? He doesn't say, as says Forest chairman Lord Harris of High Tar (oops sorry, High Cross): "Evidence is accumulating that the SS (stop smoking) brigade has over-reached itself. The unrepresentative minority of anti-smoking extremists have not generally resorted to violence against smokers. But in their determination to win the day, they are increasingly drawn from hanky-panky, hocus-pocus and make-believe into more serious deception, even outright fabrication." He doesn't have to get this paranoid and hysterical. He's got his pipe to calm him down.

Forest's latest assault on the evil forces of preventative health care comes in the form of a poll of more than 600 publicans and restaurateurs in England and Scotland. Chosen at random, the landlords and ladies were asked three questions.

First they were asked if they would support a total ban on smoking in their pub or restaurant. Among those who ran pubs, 6 per cent would support a ban, while 93 per cent wouldn't. Among restaurateurs, 25 per cent would support a ban, while 71 per cent would not.

Next they were asked: "Who should have the final say on an individual pub or restaurant's policy on smoking?" Among publicans, 89 per cent felt that the decision should rest with them, while 3 per cent felt it should rest with central government, 3 per cent the local authority and 3 per cent with the customers. Among restaurateurs, 85 per cent felt the decision should be theirs, while 10 per cent thought it was for central or local government, and 1 per cent wanted the policy-makers to be the customers.

Finally, came the big question: "How would a total ban on smoking affect your trade?" Among publicans, 1 per cent felt it would increase trade, 90 per cent felt it would damage trade, and 2 per cent thought it would have no effect. Among restaurateurs, 6 per cent felt it would increase trade, 70 per cent thought it would decrease trade.

Forest, as is its wont, has greeted these figures not as heartening but unsurprising, but with the usual degree of ash-tumbling excitement and fag-burns-on-the-curtains arm-waving. The statistics have been deployed to launch "Dangerous Liaison", a pamphlet sub-titled: "How the health police and the myth of passive smoking have conspired to demonise smoking in 'public places'".

The pamphlet goes on to argue that, "The fallacy of passive smoking is quite simply intended to give militant anti-smokers a pretext to deploy a whole range of discriminatory practices against smokers, including a total ban on smoking in public places such as pubs and restaurants, regardless of whether this is in the best interests of these privately run establishments."

The demolition of passive smoking as a health risk draws heavily on the Warwick report, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year. Researchers questioned the results of 37 studies about the development of lung cancer due to passive smoking because the results of 23 other studies which failed to make a link were ignored.

The results of the 37 studies suggested that the increased risk of lung cancer from exposure to other people's smoke ran at 24 per cent. But when the further 23 studies were included, the figure dropped to 15 per cent. Since the risk of a non-smoker contracting lung cancer is very small anyway, this 15 per cent rise is a small increase in an already tiny risk.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't like to say that therefore there's no such thing as passive smoking. I passively smoked myself in the distant days of the Seventies. It was the weeping eyes and the burning throat that I got from sitting in crowded bars and clubs that prompted me to decide I wasn't going to beat them, so I might as well join them. Of course, what Forest means is that there's no such thing as cancer-giving passive smoking. This point is given further credence by the demolition of the American Environmental Protection Agency's statistics, which admittedly have been massaged astonishingly. Forest quotes an anonymous observer: "Yes, it's rotten science, but it's in a worthy cause. It will help us to get rid of cigarettes and become a smoke-free society."

Rotten manipulation of people, as well as rotten science, but once again, Forest just goes right over the top. "Goebbels couldn't have put it better, when he recommended the Big Lie to Hitler." Come now. Whatever can be said about the SS - stop smoking - brigade, there can be no doubt that their interest is in extending human life, not extinguishing it. Forest does itself no credit by constantly citing images of the Third Reich when it engages with the dark forces of preventative health care.

However, it cannot be denied that Forest's arguments about the manipulation of evidence about passive smoking are persuasive. And with the collapse of the threat to public health of passive smoking, a huge hole is blown in the arguments of those who call for a ban on smoking in "public places", although Forest's main argument is that the hospitality trade would lose profit if it was subjected to a ban. The pamphlet cites many pubs and restaurants which have tried bans and found them not to have been popular.

Forest then goes on to argue passionately (of course) that an ideal situation might be one in which those non-smokers who wish to frequent "public places" which cater only to them can do that, that those non-smokers who don't have a preference don't mind, and those smokers who like to hang out in smoke-filled rooms can. Perfect! Just what we have at the moment. A lot of energy has gone into defending the status quo.

Of course the erosion of the civil liberties of smokers can be irritating. And, as Forest points out, it is irritating that "smokers who pay over £7,000,000,000 a year in taxes are grotesquely accused of being a burden on the NHS and may even be denied treatment." But despite all of Forest's huffing and puffing - and you must, in the circumstances, admire their lung power - I can't help remaining suspicious. Decent smokers, my straw poll has told me, want to distance themselves from Forest. Isn't this sinister? Could it be that Forest is really a group of fifth columnists, a gaggle of eccentric elderly types planted by the dark forces of preventative health care?

After all, young people continue to take up smoking because it is seen as cool and trendy, and associated with living fast and dying young. The spectacle of these dear old buggers fulminating over worldwide conspiracies with their yellow moustaches and their pipes is enough to make any self-respecting 15-year-old think twice. Could it be that Forest is not at all what it seems?

18 August 2000

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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