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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 11:29 GMT
The hunt for the pro-smokers
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

It used to be so clear - there were anti-smokers and there were pro-smokers. But with quit lines, patches, adverts, bans, warnings and legal actions, the anti-smoking set has never been stronger. So what happened to the pro-smoking lobby?

A decade ago smoking in offices was still common. You could light up on a bus or a plane and enjoy a cigarette at the cinema.

These smokers' pleasures have all but disappeared and, after winning a ban on tobacco advertising, the anti-smoking lobby is pushing for an end to puffing in bars and restaurants.

The momentum and influence of those opposed to smoking is so great that the £12bn tobacco industry, one of the most powerful in the world, could almost be seen as the underdog.

Ben Youdan, campaign director of Wednesday's national No Smoking Day, says: "Pro-smokers are becoming more and more on the fringe of the debate. The health arguments have become stronger and stronger and it's becoming harder to undermine them."

But despite the strength of the opposition, a quarter of all Britons and up to half of all pub visitors still smoke. What hope do they have of fighting their corner?

Life saver?

Singer Joe Jackson, a patron of smokers' group Forest, is among those who believe the next line of battle will be over the right to smoke in bars and restaurants.

Woman smoking

"Every day has become no smoking day in Britain," he says.

A potential ban in public places, which is to be introduced in Ireland later this month, is something anti-smokers are increasingly vocal about. Many pushing for the kind of laws that have stopped the practice in entertainment venues in California and New York.

Ben Youdan says 4,800 lives a year could be saved if smoking was banned in all offices, bars and restaurants in the UK.

A recent poll suggested three-quarters of Londoners want all enclosed public spaces to be completely smoke free and in Brighton, city officials are considering their own ban.

Jackson, who recently moved back to the UK after leaving New York, partly because of its smoking policy, is in no mood for the "appalling prospect" of a ban here. "Nightlife works better when everyone can socialise together," he says.

Jackson says passive smoking is a "hoax", but is still sympathetic to those who don't want to spend their time in a smoky atmosphere.

He says customer demand should be allowed to dictate whether or not a bar is non-smoking, and in those where cigarettes are still allowed he suggests better air-conditioning.

Profound effect

The singer's spirit of compromise is typical of those arguing for smokers' rights nowadays. Nobody talks of being "pro-smoker" - instead they are "pro-choice".

We know that we get under the skin of the anti-smoking lobby and it may sound childish, but I enjoy it
Simon Clark, director of Forest

The hospitality industry's umbrella group, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, says the experience of New York venues suggests a smoking ban here could lead to a 30% fall in takings at bars, restaurants and casinos.

Its chief executive, Nick Bish, says only a "major stock market crash or terrorist attack" could possibly have a more profound effect.

But again there is talk of compromise. "We want people to make their own policy and to recognise it's an important issue that affects their customers and staff," says Mr Bish. "This might include no smoking areas or more effective ventilation."

'Serious health effects'

Another major change for the "pro-choice" lobby has been an attempt by the tobacco industry to be seen as more responsible.

Following lawsuits from cancer victims in the US and the growing body of evidence linking smoking to all manner of health problems, manufacturers are putting out their own carefully worded advice.

Joe Jackson
Singer Joe Jackson says a smoking ban would be "appalling"

Philip Morris, manufacturers of brands including Marlboro and Benson & Hedges, openly refers to the "serious health effects of our products".

It argues that no cigarette is "safe" and campaigns against children smoking.

This need for control has directly affected Forest, arguably the most vocal advocate of smokers' rights in the UK.

Despite the support of about 400 individuals, Forest gets 96% of its money from the tobacco industry. But Philip Morris and Gallaher have withdrawn their support, leaving it dependent on the patronage of BAT and Imperial.

"Our funding is down to about £200,000, which is not a lot for running an organisation like this," says Forest director Simon Clark, who says he is a non-smoker. "Our funding has gone down consistently over the last 10 to 15 years."

He is not about to give up though and has turned to the web, to cut the costs of printed campaigns.

And there is always the desire to beat his old enemy to draw on. "We know that we get under the skin of the anti-smoking lobby and it may sound childish, but I enjoy it."

Rude health

Any sympathetic noises about the state of the smokers' lobby are quickly dismissed by Professor Gerard Hastings, director of the Cancer Research funded Centre for Tobacco Control Research.

He says the tobacco industry has become more subtle in its overtures to UK markets and that it accepts there are health consequences to smoking.

But he still believes the industry is going from strength to strength: "Smoking rates are down in the UK, but there are huge profits to be made abroad."

The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association also argues that the industry is in rude health.

Chief executive Tim Lord says: "Advertising was taken away from us last year and great big warnings put all on packs.

"But we do not think the game is over and we are as active as we can be to maintain the ability of others to smoke in public places."

Coming from an industry that has 13 million regular customers in the UK alone, his fighting words are unlikely to be easy to ignore.

Have smokers become the underdogs? Add your comments using the form below.

I recently moved to New York from England and as a non-smoker I love 'Smoke Free New York'. At first it did feel strange having clean air in bars and pubs, but its just so nice to be able to go home and not feel like I need to scrub myself clean to get rid of the disgusting smoky smell.
Victoria, USA

I'd rather have someone smoking in a bar or restaurant next to me than someone being abusive & vile due to excessive amounts of alcohol. Do you want alcohol banned too? I've seen plenty of non smokers vomiting in the street.

I'm sick of coming back from pubs, with stinging eyes, a burning feeling in the back of my throat, my hair and clothes just reeking of smoke. Perhaps if people opened non-smoking pubs, takings would go up, because people would go.
Heather, Scotland

As far as I can remember non-smokers are not forced to go into bars where smoking is allowed. If they don't like it, then go somewhere else.
Paul, London UK

You drinkers will be next, the damage to society caused by alcohol is great and the bar of the future will be alcohol free with a crèche, soft drinks and approved non-threatening music playing in the background.
Paul S, UK

It's bad enough being a snoutcast at work, but I will not accept being one socially, when 75% of the people in the bar I'm at smoke. We're all grown ups - let us choose the venue we wish, and allow the venue to cater for both groups.
Steve Henson, England

In places such as bars and restaurants smokers should be given the luxury to smoke if they want to.
Manuby Dooby, England

Underdogs? If smokers were dogs they'd pee on your furniture, bite you, claim it was every dogs right and it didn't do any harm. What a load of rubbish, it smells, it harms, it kills and it robs non-smokers of the right to fresh air.
Dan, UK

Underdogs or not they'll certainly end up underground and with such a wealth of scientific and social warning against the consequences I'm afraid I have very little sympathy for them.
Chris Connor, Glasgow

If less than 25% of people in the UK smoke but up to 50% of people in bars and restaurants do, does that mean that a large portion of people do not go to pubs and restaurants because of the smoke?
Sean, UK

Smokers are far more sociable and healthy than non smokers - we spend so much time outside having a fag and always talk to other smokers. At work you get to find out all the gossip during those fag breaks!

Yes smokers have become the underdogs, but so they should be. Smokers can no longer use the argument "I'm not harming anyone but myself".

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Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published.

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