Last week Simon Clark and Deborah Arnott clashed on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire over a proposal for a new levy on tobacco. It was interesting enough for me to take the trouble to transpose most of the text of the radio interview:
Interviewer: Deborah, why are you calling for this levy?
Deborah Arnott: We’re calling for this levy because basically still too many people are dying from smoking. And the tobacco companies do the damage and they should be paying for it. So we want a levy to go – and this is supported by strong public opinion, nearly two thirds of people say they’d be happy with a 25 pence levy on a packet of cigarettes, and remember cigarettes cost from around 6 pounds to over 9 pounds, so they’re very expensive already, which would go to help smokers quit and prevent young people from taking up smoking, because the public believe that the tobacco industry does the damage and they should be paying for it.
Interviewer: Let’s welcome to this debate Simon Clark who’s the direct of Forest which is a pro-smoking organisation. What do you make of this idea, Simon?
Simon Clark: Pro-choice, not pro-smoking. Well, we don’t think a tobacco levy will work. …Must remember that consumers already pay 86% tobacco taxation on every packet of cigarettes they buy. So smokers and the industry are already making a huge contribution to the economy, much of which goes to paying for smoking-related diseases. Nobody doubts or argues that there are clearly serious health risks associated with smoking, but it’s an informed choice for adults, and if you increasingly put up the price of cigarettes you actually drive people to the black market, and we know there’s a flourishing black market in smuggled cigarettes and counterfeit cigarettes, and criminal gangs don’t care who they sell to: they’re more than happy to sell to children. So what happens is that you lose control of the market, and not only does the government lose revenue, and by association the NHS will lose revenue as well from that tobacco taxation, but actually cigarettes get into the hands of children, so it’s totally and utterly counter-productive.
Interviewer: Deborah, what do you say to that, that this levy would actually take money away from the NHS?
DA: Well, first of all can I address the issue of choice. Two thirds of people take up smoking before the age of 18. It’s a childhood addiction. And two thirds of smokers want to quit, and many more wish they’d never started. So this isn’t a matter of choice. It’s a terrible addiction. It’s as addictive as heroin or cocaine. And smokers themselves say they want help to quit. And the idea that that it would drive people to the illicit market, that’s an issue of enforcement. And as Simon well knows, the industry is complicit in the smuggled market. British-American Tobacco was fined £650,000 just before Christmas for over-supply of tobacco to European markets knowing it was going to be bouncing back here, because there wasn’t a market for their products there.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about this issue of choice. Simon, do you take the point that when you’re dealing with a substance which is highly addictive, choice becomes a slightly slippery word.
SC: No, I totally disagree. I mean, I totally accept that for some people nicotine is addictive. But the reality is that millions of people have quit smoking in recent decades, and people are giving up smoking all the time. My own mother-in-law was a 40-a-day smoker, and she gave up overnight. I’m not suggesting that it’s not difficult for some people to quit, but this idea that it’s as addictive as heroin or cocaine and all the rest of it, I just think this is hyperbole on the part of the antismoking industry. Going back to the tobacco levy, what happens next? Do we have a levy on the food and drink industries? Because clearly if you drink too much, if you’re an excessive drinker, if you’re an alcoholic, it’s going to have a health impact on you. Likewise if you drink too many sugary drinks, or eat fatty foods and dairy products. This all has health impacts as well. So do we have a levy on food and drink as well? It really is utterly nonsense, and especially in terms of tobacco when we’re already paying so much tobacco taxation in the first place. I repeat, 86% of the average price of cigarettes goes to the government already.
Interviewer: Do you feel, Simon, that smokers are being unfairly victimised?
SC: Well, I do. I speak as a non-smoker. I do think that smokers are not doing anything wrong. I accept what Deborah said that there are some smokers who wish to quit and wish they’d never started, but that still leaves millions of people who genuinely enjoy smoking. We don’t hear enough about that. The fact is that a lot of people enjoy smoking. They don’t wish to quit. And actually when they hear people like Deborah on an almost daily basis nagging them to quit, they actually dig their heels in and they reach for their fags in defiance, because they’re fed up…
DA: Can I…
Interviewer: Let’s hear from Deborah on this, Simon.
DA: What Simon forgets to tell you is that his organisation Forest is not a grass roots membership organisation. Its funding comes almost entirely from the tobacco industry, and he’s mouthing tobacco industry rhetoric. These are the lies that the tobacco industry use, and it’s disgusting…
SC: And ASH is funded by the taxpayer.
DA: No, hang on a second.
SC: No, Deborah, you are funded by the taxpayer, and you lobby government!
Interviewer: OK, OK, can you just calm down, because otherwise we can’t hear either of you. Deborah, continue with what you were saying.
DA: Yes. Thank you. We are funded largely by the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK.
SC: Do you get money from the taxpayer?
DA: Can I finish, Simon!
DA: We get some funding from the Department of Health to support implementation of the Tobacco Control plan for England.
SC: How much?
DA: We had £200,000 last year. Can I just finish what I’m saying. Your funding comes from the tobacco industry. You’re mouthing the tobacco industry lies. This is a highly addictive substance. 80,000 die each year in England, and something like twenty times as many smokers are suffering years of disability from smoking-related diseases.
Interviewer: OK, Deborah, let’s hear from Simon. I mean, Forest is funded mainly by the tobacco industry, isn’t it?
SC: Indeed. Because they want to support their consumers. But I actually can think for myself, and it’s typical of Deborah and tobacco controllers who seem to think we’re all mouthing the messages of the tobacco industry. I can think for myself. Millions of smokers can think for themselves, and millions of smokers have chosen to take up smoking, and they choose to continue smoking because they enjoy it, and nothing that people like Deborah says, particularly this nagging, hectoring tone, it’s not going to change their minds.
Interviewer: Lots more to debate on this topic.
As ever in these sorts of debates, I was disappointed when Simon Clark immediately conceded a great deal of ground. “Nobody doubts or argues that there are clearly serious health risks associated with smoking,” and “Cigarettes get into the hands of children, so it’s totally and utterly counter-productive.” At this point, you might have been forgiven for thinking that both Deborah Arnott and Simon Clark were in the same line of business, and singing from the same hymn sheet.
But after that, he conceded very little.
I scored it as a win for Simon Clark. But really only because the interviewer offered him a dolly of a question with “Do you feel, Simon, that smokers are being unfairly victimised?” That gave him the opportunity to expand on the victimisation of smokers, and to gather the momentum that he sustained for the remainder of the interview.
The reason that Simon Clark was bowled this dolly only emerged at the very end, when the interviewer announced that later on that day, in another programme, it was going to be asked whether “smokers are being unfairly victimised.”
I didn’t hear the other programme. And for all I know, it may well have been decided on it that they weren’t being victimised enough, and should be made to wear yellow stars and scrub the streets. Or is the normally antismoking BBC shifting its position?
The interview raised the question of tactics. Simon Clark’s initial concessions might be seen as an example of reculer pour mieux sauter, because after the initial retreat he gained the initiative, and thereafter advanced.
And I’m beginning to think that Deborah Arnott’s routine depiction of smokers as the captives and serfs of the tobacco industry, helplessly addicted to tobacco, and dutifully mouthing tobacco industry lies (it may have been ‘lines’), is such an awful distortion of reality that it may eventually backfire on her. After all, how many people, when they see a smoker light up in a pub garden, see that smoker as the bonded slave of the tobacco industry, without a will of their own. Very few, I would imagine. Or if they did, they would almost certainly see the same smoker, as he sipped his beer between puffs on his cigarette, as the tied serf of Big Alcohol as well. And when he nibbled on some salted peanuts too, they’d identify him as also the chained and bound prisoner of Big Nut and Big Salt. The dystopian world that is implied here is one in which more or less everything sold by any “industry” of any sort whatsoever is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and the only reason why anyone buys cars, clothes, shoes, perfumes, books, televisions, computers, and so on, is because they are addicts seeking the high that comes with tearing open the packaging around their latest Nike trainers. Is that really all that drives the global economy?