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« Why ASH should be at the fag end of government grants | Main | The BBC, Maggie and me »
Sunday
Nov142010

Archive: interview with Forest's first director, Stephen Eyres

Amazing what you find in the course of a clear-out. A long-lost issue of Campus, the student magazine I edited from 1978-80 and again from 1983-84, has turned up. To my surprise it includes an interview I did with Stephen Eyres, one of my predecessors and the first director of Forest, in 1984. I thought you might like to read it:

THE WIT AND THE WISDOM OF ... STEPHEN EYRES

"I really wish we didn't exist."

In a small South London office surrounded by news cuttings, posters, pamphlets and empty coffee mugs, sits a tall, distinguished yet cheerful-looking gentleman. As he speaks he leans back in his chair and proudly fondles the thick dark growth on his upper lip, a recent and much loved innovation unashamedly described as "a sign of middle age".

The room exudes an air of calm before the storm (Channel 4 is due to interview him that afternoon), with the silence broken only by the rat-a-tat-tat of a single typewriter and the muffled roar of traffic outside.

Stephen Eyres, archetypal chinless Tory, is the charismatic director of Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), a libertarian pressure group best known for its successful campaign to make British Rail re-think a smoking ban in buffet cars.

Ironically Eyres is a non-smoker. "I occasionally have a cigar at the end of a banquet," he says, "because I like the aroma. But I have frequently said that I am a happy passive smoker of other people's cigars!"

Forest was founded in 1979, apparently on the whim of Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, an ex-Battle of Britain pilot who took grave exeption when told, by a lady at Reading railway station, what he could do with his pipe. Two years later he was joined by Eyres who quit The Freedom Association to help the cause.

Consequently Forest has emerged as an active, non-partisan pressure group with support from both sides of the political spectrum. One of Forest's biggest supporters, he says, is Labour MP Roy Mason whose avowed intention is to "defend the interests of the working man".

Those who want to ban smoking are described by Eyres as "busybodies". He is particularly alarmed at any attempt by the state to dictate to people what they can and cannot do. "Seventeen million adults in the UK choose to smoke. That's their business, not the state's. What will they outlaw next? Obesity?"

Forest is currently funded by the tobacco industry and private subscribers. Eyres is contemptuous of anti-smoking lobbies, especially those such as ASH and the Health Education Council which are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, the latter by over £2m last year.

Lest some people get the wrong idea, he adds, somewhat defensively, "We are not encouraging people to smoke. It's a question of politics and philosophy, not medicine. I don't debate about cancer or heart disease but about the role of the state and the rights of authority."

But what about the rights of non-smokers? "Of course, smoking in confined spaces can be unpleasant and annoying to non-smokers so smokers must exercise due courtesy to the wishes of the non-smoker. But courtesy is not a matter for government legislation."

Ultimately, says Eyres, the question of smoking is one of property rights - that is, what happens on private property is the business of the owner alone. All one needs, he argues, are sensible and representative restrictions such as those on buses where smokers sit on the top deck.

"Total bans," he says, "are completely unworkable anyway. Grampian Regional Council tried to ban all smoking on buses but it is patently not working."

Public support, he claims, is firmly on Forest's side. Even though only 40 per cent of the population now smoke, independent opinion polls conducted in various parts of the country last year suggest that two-thirds of all adults, including non-smokers, want to keep their freedom to choose. Only a quarter want smoking banned in public.

The dramatic decrease in the number of smokers is due, he believes, to the sharp increase in the price of cigarettes over the last decade, plus a new phenomenon which he calls "health nagging".

Whatever the politics of Forest, and Eyres is adamant that it is non-party political, those of the director himself are unequivocally Thatcherite. Having graduated from St Andrews University in 1970, a period he recalls with horror as the "dark years of Heath", he first worked for the Selsdon Group ("fighting to keep the free-market philosophy alive") and later as a tutor at Swinton Conservative College until its closure in 1975 when party funds ran dry.

Not long afterwards he joined Norris McWhirter's right-wing Freedom Association, eventually becoming editor of the Freedom Association newspaper Free Nation.

"One of our finest moments," he recalls, "coincided with the TUC Day of Action in 1980." With Fleet Street newspapers grounded, The Freedom Association printed and sold a quarter of a million copies of Free Nation via a network of newsagents.

This special issue was a great success. It even included the obligatory topless model. Needless to say it was one of the most popular, and controversial, items prompting the inevitable reaction from frustrated feminists. To one Eyres is said to have replied, "Madam, if she was being fucked by a donkey you would have a case."

With his proven commitment to the free market, Eyres has also stood for Parliament on three occasions, albeit unsuccessfully. He reserves his fondest memories for his 1974 campaign in Central Fife where he fought the sitting Labour MP, Willie Hamilton, on a platform of de-nationalising the mines.

The issue aroused great interest and debates between Eyres and the Communist candidate attracted audiences of up to a thousand bemused miners.

Further defeats in 1979 and 1983 have forced Eyres to concede that a parliamentary career may have passed him by. "No-one else will have me," he wails. Not that he intends being idle. "So long as professional busybodies are trying to control our lives there has to be a response," he says firmly.

"I'd also like to campaign against restrictive licensing laws," he adds. "The other side are such awful puritans. If they had their way we'd all be drinking herbal tea and eating All-Bran with compulsory aerobics in between."

With people like Stephen Eyres around, that time should be some way off yet.

Postscript: this interview was published in 1984. Stephen Eyres died in 1990 of a non-smoking related disease. He was 42.

Reader Comments (8)

I like this so much because it reminds me of when life was normal. Sorry to hear Eyres died so young.

November 14, 2010 at 18:40 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

It's been on today's news that doctors are so short of organs that they're having to transplant the lungs of twenty a day smokers....

Now, if those lungs weren't perfectly serviceable, wouldn't the doctors be guilty of malpractice? Are they obliged to inform their patients of the provenance of said lungs and, if so, would even the most virulent anti-smoker refuse them?

(A very modern dilemma: to die from the lack of lungs or from the (fabricated) terror of having to have smokers' lungs.)

And I'll bet there are antismoking donors who try to stipulate that their lungs aren't to be given to smokers.

If, however, my lungs are viewed, as I am, as second class, then I'll save everyone embarrassment by not donating them.

November 14, 2010 at 19:31 | Unregistered CommenterJoyce

Sadly Stephen Eyres died far too young. He was of that ilk that knew bull-shit when ever he saw or heard it being peddled. He already had a coherent understanding that those who wished to ban smoking were “busybodies”. How right he was. He also understood property rights too. He even spoke of outlawing obesity next…and that was back then. I also liked his phrase “health nagging”.

It’s perhaps worth archiving material from Forest’s inception to where we are today over 30 years on and publishing a book…it would make fascinating reading.

Incidentally, something that never really occurred to me before, which is that the acronym FOREST stands for (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), perhaps this should be referred to more often.

November 14, 2010 at 19:39 | Unregistered CommenterBill

"What will they outlaw next? Obesity?"

Oh dear! How horribly prophetic. And I bet he genuinely only said it tongue-in-cheek because he thought it such a ridiculous idea. He must be spinning in his grave, now, poor chap!

Oh well, best start stocking up on the All-Bran now!

November 15, 2010 at 0:11 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

I think I interviewed him myself - at LBC radio in the late 80s. I remember much being made of the fact he didn't smoke (or perhaps it was the Forest director that came after him? Who was that Simon?)

November 15, 2010 at 7:47 | Unregistered CommenterMark Butcher

Stephen Eyres was succeeded by Chris Tame in the late Eighties. Sadly, Chris also died of a non-smoking-related disease, aged 56, in March 2006. In his Guardian obituary he was described as a "devout non-smoker [who] believed smokers' rights should be based on respect for private property rights". After Chris came my predecessor Marjorie Nicholson who WAS a smoker!

November 15, 2010 at 8:38 | Registered CommenterSimon Clark

First I've heard of Stephen. He sounds like an absolutely great bloke, and would stand no chance whatever with the Blue Fabians currently in charge of a party (and House) that could at least once boast a rich array of 'characters'.

His 'donkey' remark to the Outraged Feminist would probably get him arrested under Anti -Terrorist legislation today. How did we EVER allow ourselves to become governed by these sour-souled gits (with their saccharine-sweet smiles of assurance) ? Future historians will certainly have their work cut out in providing a convincing answer.

God bless him, anyway - and all like him.

November 15, 2010 at 11:23 | Unregistered CommenterMartin V

Joyce -

The corollary of your interesting story runs as follows:

"Sorry, Mr Smith, but I'm afraid we've run completely out of smoke-free lungs, and you'll just have to die."

"But, Doctor, I don't mind, really. Ex-smokers' lungs are fine by me. I'll take my chances."

"No, Mr Smith. It's a matter of principle, you see. Smoking is bad, and we must do everything we can to stamp it out."

"Even if I have to die ?"

"But at least you'll die smoke-free. And that's all that matters."

"OK, Doc - you know best, I suppose."

"Indeed I do."

November 15, 2010 at 11:32 | Unregistered CommenterMartin V

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