This morning I was on BBC Radio Ulster talking about smoking in cars where children are present. My principal opponent was Lord Laird of Artigarvan. I began by taking an emollient approach. "I've met Lord Laird," I schmoozed, "and he's a charming man, but he's completely wrong." And very soon we were at it hammer and tongs.
In truth, and despite stiff competition, I can't think of a single peer who is more anti-smoking than Lord Laird. You could almost describe it as illness. This morning, par for the course, there was talk of smoking around children being "obscene" and a form of "child abuse". (If I hear that once more, and I'm sure I will, I'm going to scream. Or should that be "thcream"?)
I assume that Lord Laird wants smoking near children to be prohibited by law, but he didn't go that far. In fact, he was a model of restraint. He merely wants it to be illegal to smoke in any public place, indoors or outdoors.
Anyway, some years ago (before the introduction of the smoking ban) I chaired a discussion between Lord Laird and the late Lord Harris of High Cross. I edited the transcript and with the permission of both men we released it to the media on No Smoking Day 2003. I published a short extract on this blog a couple of years ago but, following my spat with Lord Laird this morning, I think it's time to post the full transcript.
For the record, Lord Laird is a former Ulster Unionist MP. He ran his own PR company, John Laird Public Relations, in Belfast and is one of Britain's most outspoken anti-smoking campaigners. Lord Harris was founder president of the Institute of Economic Affairs, chairman of Forest from 1987 until his death in 2006, and author of several books and monographs about smoking including Murder A Cigarette and The Truth About Passive Smoking.
Lord Laird: I have never been a smoker. I never liked the smell of it. Now I am 58 years of age [this was seven years ago] I find that people I know who smoke are either seriously ill with cancer or, in some cases, dead. I lost my own father, aged 63, through a smoking-related illness. I also lost an uncle, although he was in his eighties, through a long, slow, cancerous death, and three years ago my wife lost her best friend, a small blonde 51-year-old, to a smoking-related illness.
Lord Harris: I lost an uncle to lung cancer at 55 but I've learned from researching all these bewildering and conflicting statistics that although smoking is a risk factor in various conditions called 'smoking-related diseases', diet, hereditary factors, age, and general lifestyle are also very important. I'm not trying to take liberties with statistics, but the fact is that two-thirds of the entire population will die of 'smoking-related diseases' including the majority of non-smokers. The majority of smokers who die of such diseases are over 75. They may have lived even longer had they not smoked but this constant association with smoking and death is, frankly, an over simplification.
Laird: I am quite prepared to accept that but if there are any deaths at all then that presents a difficulty. I look at this from the angle of someone who would in theory support the concept behind your organisation: free choice. It's important we should all have choices but somebody who has got him or herself hooked on to the tobacco drug no longer has a free choice. I've done a recent poll among all my friends who smoke - mostly female, incidentally - and I know of only one person who says 'I have no intention of giving it up.' Every other person says, 'Yes, I will give it up, but not today.' That to me conjures up a section in society which is underachieving. They're depleting their financial resources, they are giving themselves a problems health wise, and they're not fulfilling their potential as human beings because they're enslaved by tobacco.
Harris: When you say that smoking is an addiction ...
Laird: I didn't use that word but I'm prepared to.
Harris: ... there's a lot of debate about that word. Psychologists and psychiatrists describe addictions as things that change your personality, your whole conduct. That's where drugs come in. People do unnatural things, things they wouldn't normally do, under the influence of drugs. By contrast, a lot of people fulfil themselves through sucking at their pipes or smoking their fags. It's part of their personality. What about that?
Laird: Yes, but it's usually the less well off people in society who smoke and as a result they become socially excluded which I feel very strongly about because I don't believe in social exclusion.
Harris: That didn't happen in the old days.
Laird: Yes, it didn't happen in the old days but we're not as tolerant now. We'll not put up with this stuff. How can people operate to the maximum of their ability when they're continually working out little ploys and plots to get outside for a tobacco break? I've been in organisations where the whole strategy is to get outside to smoke. Outside I see a lot of people smoking and on the ground is a whole series of cigarette butts which is very sad. And speaking as a male, there is nothing more horrible than to see an attractive female smoking a fag. I'll tell you an oxymoron: an attractive female smoker. How can you have a girl go to all the trouble to put on nice perfume and then smell like a stale ashtray? That's social exclusion.
Harris: The smoker is the victim of social exclusion, not the cause of it.
Laird: No, he's the cause of it. If he or she didn't smoke they wouldn't be excluded.
Harris: Well, there are two sides on that. For example, one of the things that Forest has passionately argued for is smoking compartments on trains. It is preposterous that in the whole of the South East and Home Counties, where there are journeys of one or two hours if the trains are on time, three if they're not, there is not a single smoking compartment on any train. Smoking compartments offered plenty of social inclusion because you met other smokers and were quite chummy together, and it didn't cause any inconvenience to other people. Is there not some concession whereby we can shake hands and say, 'OK, live and let live'?
Laird: Yes, to an extent, but I think the concept of not allowing people to smoke on public transport has been rather more fair to the smoker because he is no longer socially excluded. He can sit with normal people and enjoy normal conversation. We've got to the stage where we've got to put the squeeze on smokers. I defend the rights of people who wish to smoke but they must take the consequences. They must pay for their habit. There must be, in buildings like the Palace of Westminster, a designated area where smokers are wired off ...
Harris: Wired off?!
Laird: Yes, you wouldn't want them getting out with their cigarettes! They could be looked after and fed and taken out every now and again [laughs]. Smoking is not something that is nice or pleasant or social. I wish smokers could see themselves as non-smokers, the ordinary person, sees them. They are the nicest people in terms of their personality but their packaging and presentation is all wrong because they smoke.
Harris: But if you look at the evidence on passive smoking as a danger to health - rather than as something that is inconvenient, awkward or tiresome - there is nothing in it. Would you accept that?
Laird: No, although I accept that the dangers of passive smoking might be over hyped. What I think, over and above that, is that I don't want to be in company where, when I go home, my clothes and my hair smell. Put crudely, what's the point of me wearing aftershave and then going into a place where people smoke?
Harris: Aftershave? I hate that! If I get a whiff of strong aftershave I think 'Argghhhh'.
Laird: So what do you want to do about it?
Harris: Nothing. Live and let live.
Laird: My feeling with the tobacco industry is live and let die. We have got to put the squeeze on. I am sorry for smokers. We must set them free. We must cut them way from the shackles of the nicotine weed.
Harris: You're doing well [laughs]! But seriously, have I impeded my career? What about Malcolm Bradbury, a pipesmoker who died two years ago of non-smoking related diseases. Did smoking impede his career?
Laird: You don't know.
Harris: You stigmatise the whole thing, don't you?
Laird: What I say as an employer is that nobody wishes to employ people who smoke because they cause so much trouble. Whenever we had a smoker his or her office had to be redecorated twice as often as any of the other offices. After we changed to a smoke free building they were forever out the back smoking, which upset other members of staff. Did they offer to spend an extra hour at the end of the day making up for lost time? No.
Harris: Forgive me, but my origins are working class and the percentage of us who still smoke are disproportionately working class. We pay tax and until recently we produced £10 billion for the Chancellor which covered a quarter of the cost of the entire health service. Yet, now, even in a decent trade union meeting, they'll have a 'No Smoking' sign up. The world has gone mad!
Laird: There's one Labour peer who I sometimes meet sitting on a seat in the corridor. If smoke has been wafting out of the side rooms he can't go any further until he gets his breath back.
Harris: I know him. He's a fanatic. He leaves the room, even a big party with champagne, if someone is smoking. That's exceptional. He's excluding himself, isn't he? He really should put a gas mask on.
Laird: This is a problem which could be rectified if smokers were allowed to subsidise their habit in a proper way. There needs to be a special area in which they can smoke. Take it away from the rest of us, we don't want it.
Harris: Air conditioning and all that stuff, we believe in that.
Laird: The point is, there should be areas like that but they should be paid for by taxes from tobacco and circulated back to the employers.
Harris: Forgive me, I knew a professor at the London School of Economics, a non-smoker, who always had a box of matches on him. If anyone produced a packet of fags he would lean forward and light one for them saying, 'It's the least I can do since you pay all those high taxes for me.' Smokers are benevolent characters. We're paying £10 billion, over and above income tax and everything else, on smoking. It is preposterous, in my view. It's completely overdone.
Laird: I keep on asking the Government, does the tax on smoking cover the Health Service's ability to look after smokers ...
Harris: It certainly does, many times over ...
Laird: ... and they seem incapable of answering it. But while we're on the risk factor, what about the fire risk? What number of domestic residences are damaged throughout the United Kingdom on an annual basis by smokers? There must be a fair number of people who die and whose houses are damaged through smoking or smoking-related fires.
Harris: I'm not challenging you, but do we know that? By the way, I noticed that when the King's Cross Underground caught fire it was immediately said to have been caused by a cigarette. It was later found that there was all this rubbish under the escalators, sparks were coming off and so on. I mean, it's possible, but no-one to this day can claim that the fire was definitely caused by a cigarette.
Laird: OK, but there's nothing more disgusting than smoking and smoking in a Tube station disgusts me even more. Today I was behind a guy and when he finished his cigarette he flung it to the floor and didn't even stamp it out.
Harris: That's awful, no excuses. But you really are a bad case. I had a chap sitting next to me on the Tube and his little bleeper was going off constantly. People on the other side of the carriage had sandwiches and were eating, which I also hate, and other people were drinking. There are no fag ends in the Underground anymore but there are lots of discarded plastic containers. A lot of things I find quite annoying but you really are very, very focused on smoking. Why?
Laird: I have other obsessions but I believe that we have a duty to smokers. I don't think it will happen in my lifetime but I do think that somewhere down the line smokers will be set free and I would like to have played some part in that. Smokers must be set free. They cannot reach their full potential otherwise. By and large society does not like smokers. That's why you get social exclusion. I'm totally opposed to social exclusion but the people who exclude smokers are smokers. I'm very sad and very sorry about it. I'd go anywhere at any stage to stop someone smoking but we've got to handle these problems very delicately. My grandfather was a tobacconist and there are lots of people employed in the smoking industry but we cannot use that argument. The slave trade created jobs and when they decided to do away with capital punishment there were a few hangmen out of work, so we've got to look at alternative methods of employing and using these people.
Harris: If I read your case correctly, this is a really authoritarian viewpoint. I've no doubt that you are totally sincere and well-intentioned, but I wouldn't dream of invigilating other people's lifestyles. Hitler was the ultimate anti-smoking fanatic but you're equally fierce on all this. I'm amazed.
Laird: Yes, I am fierce. There's no point pussy-footing around this debate. Smokers smell, their houses smell, their cars smell, everything about them smells. It's a fact of life. And if you're female, you're cutting down by a tremendous amount the number of males who are interested in you. Who is going to go out with an ashtray? The point is, what you may think as an extreme argument from me now will, in my opinion, seem perfectly acceptable in 10 or 15 years. In my lifetime I have seen a tremendous move away from smoking. The slide is on and we will win this battle.
Harris: This is an historic discussion we are having. You seem to be a perfectly well-intentioned, amiable chap to have such extreme, dogmatic views. As for exclusion, we've got a Pipe and Cigar Smokers Club in the House of Lords and the chairman is Lord Mason, one of the most jolly and cheerful chaps. I assure you that the comradeship, partly driven by the external hostility you describe, is fantastic. I mean, there are party politicians I wouldn't normally be seen dead talking to and here we are lighting each others' pipes!
Laird: Why can't this comradeship be available to all of us? You're excluding yourselves! We want you!
Harris: But, John, don't you see that we all put up with things that we don't like, we've agreed to that. By the way, do you mix with drinkers, heavy drinkers?
Laird: Not heavy drinkers, but I mix with drinkers.
Harris: And sometimes it gets rather nasty?
Laird: Oh, it does, but that's why I don't mix with heavy drinkers.
Harris: Well, I sometimes feel about heavy drinkers the way you do about smokers. It's not for me. But the idea that I would want to characterise them as outsiders, beyond the pale and so forth, is preposterous. I steer clear if I feel so inclined. I am very alarmed by your certainty of being right.
Laird: It's a wake up call.
Harris: We're wide awake! We've read the health warnings. We know that we're taking a chance. I'm not being frivolous. I've discussed it with my wife, who has a cigarette once in a blue moon, and she sees my pipe as part of me.
Laird: I will defend your right to smoke if you wish to smoke, as long as you defend my right to explain to you what the difficulties are and to explain to you about your social exclusion.
Harris: And to cast me into outer darkness?
Laird: You put yourself into outer darkness!
Harris: That is the distinction between us!
Laird: You have put yourself in outer darkness and I want to bring you back because I think you're a very jolly fellow and you and I could have a very good glass of wine at some stage and put the world to rights, but I don't see why I should be deprived of your company because you are excluding yourself. This is unfair on me now.
Harris: Are you a professional politician?
Laird: No, I'm a humble PR guy.
Harris: You certainly have a winning way of presenting an argument! But you must admit it is trying to laugh the issue out of court. You say I am excluding myself, you long to welcome me back so long as I take my pipes and my tobacco pouch and burn them and promise never to indulge again. I mean, this is a price that some of us would think wasn't worth paying.
Laird: Fine, fine. I think it would be a price worth paying. The whole of life is poorer for your exclusion. That's a great pity because there's an awful lot you could contribute. We would like to have you back.