• May 26, 2024

Rebel with a cause

 Rebel with a cause

At the helm of Forest for nearly two decades, Simon Clark continues to champion the right of adults to make their own decisions.

By George Gay

“The clue’s in the name,” said Simon Clark, the director of Forest, partway through an interview with Tobacco Reporter in October. Indeed it is, but it is a cryptic clue, as perhaps befits this studious-looking man. Forest here is an acronym for the U.K.-based Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco. So what Clark was alluding to, I think, was that his organization is primarily focused on the freedom of consumers to be able to make their own choices. Sure, freedom to smoke tobacco, but also freedom to indulge in any other activities that are legal and that don’t cause undue stress to others—with emphasis on the undue: No precious souls need apply for redress.

Forest was formed in 1979, and Clark—who had always been supportive of the organization, and who had known each of his three predecessors—became its director in 1999 for what, at the time, he imagined would be about three or four years. Clearly, it was a senior position, but you have to wonder what made him join at a time when tobacco was already a pariah industry. After all, he had left the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in 1980 with a degree in English and the ambition to become a journalist. And, indeed, he had worked as a journalist in a wide variety of roles for 15 years before joining Forest.

Well, the way he tells it, he didn’t consider being the director of Forest as a tobacco industry role; it was about consumers and their rights—though “rights” is a word he shies away from now. I would speculate, however, that there was slightly more to his career choice than that. Part of his journalistic activities were devoted to radical/reactionary—depending upon which side of the fence you are looking from—student publications; and he says that he came to Forest from the “fringes of libertarian politics.” He was, I would guess, something of a rebel without sufficient cause, and Forest provided a cause.

And I would speculate, too, that this has worked well for Forest. Clark might be studious-looking and—dare I say it?—avuncular, but he is also engagingly combative. He can smile while, if not being a villain, then certainly playing parts that require growing a moustache. He opposed the ban on smoking in cars when young people are present, and he supports people being allowed to smoke upon hospital grounds. These are not causes for the fainthearted, even though his arguments for taking the positions he does are hard to fault and display empathy for those not looked on sympathetically by everybody.

It is at instances like this that Clark engages what I would describe as his combative empathy. He seems to understand smokers even though he is not a smoker and never has been—something that is interesting in itself given that, from an early age he was exposed to tobacco advertising and, as a regular pub-goer when he was in his 20s, he experienced the sights and smells of cigarette packs and smoking, all of which we are told can draw nonsmokers into becoming smokers.

Second-class citizens

In fact, it was empathy that got him hooked on Forest, and it is probably one of the reasons that he has overstayed his three or four years. Shortly after joining the organization, he attended an international conference for about 12–14 smokers’ rights groups, as he remembers it. He turned up concerned that it was going to be a meeting of fairly hardcore libertarian activists, but the people he met, he said, were ordinary smokers from around Europe, mostly volunteers representing groups of people who simply enjoyed smoking and who came across as rather bemused by the anti-smoking movement and the increasing restrictions being foisted on smokers. All they had wanted was to be left alone to enjoy smoking. They didn’t want to upset anybody, they didn’t want to inconvenience other people, and they were happy with reasonable restrictions on where they could smoke. Clark said he felt very strongly that they needed a voice and that they should be supported.

Fast-forward, and things have become decidedly more hostile for smokers. Attempts have been made by their enemies to denormalize them, and they have been abandoned, or are being abandoned, by their erstwhile friends, with the exception of Forest and a few like-minded organizations. Although smokers were already under attack when Clark joined Forest, they were still allowed to smoke in most public places, and tobacco advertising was allowed. At that time, he said, there was far more of a sense that adults should be allowed to make their own decisions without excessive government interference. So the biggest change since then had been the buildup of a huge level of intolerance toward smoking. Smokers were now treated like second-class citizens in a way that they weren’t 15 years ago, and in no small part this could be laid at the feet of the smoking ban, which is still the issue that rankles most with U.K. smokers and Forest.

This sense of frustration is partly down to the fact that, contrary to popular belief, while the general public had supported smoking restrictions when they were proposed, only about 30 percent had supported a comprehensive ban, so the government essentially ignored public opinion—much of it garnered by Forest through an initially successful but ultimately doomed campaign—and imposed a ban that was unnecessary and unwarranted. Even today, independent Forest-funded surveys show that a majority of people in the U.K. would accept the establishment of separate smoking areas in pubs. And it is not even as if the ban has been successful in one of its key goals. Smoking rates fell only modestly after the ban came into force.

Being heard

Given all of the anti-tobacco legislation that has been passed in the U.K., it would be easy to see Forest as a failure, but this would be unfair. It must surely be the case that while things are bad for U.K. smokers, they could have been a whole lot worse without Forest having provided a consistent, rational voice for them—a voice that is not provided in many countries.

Clark, though, is modest about the achievements of his organization, even though it cannot be easy getting across the smoker’s view in the present climate. He insists, however, it is just a matter of running the office as a professional operation: making people available to answer questions from the media at any time and being on the ball with a press release when a story breaks. “We have a loud voice, and we try to use it—and we’re quite persistent,” he said. “Sometimes we will have a run-in with broadcasters about why they omitted a comment from Forest in a story, and we often get stories updated. We don’t let it go.”

In addition, Forest has an active and lively website, issues regular bulletins, and runs events aimed at maintaining its profile in political and media circles. For instance, it holds regular events at Westminster and attends political party conferences. And once a year it thumbs its nose at public smoking bans with Smoke on the Water, a smoke-friendly trip on the River Thames aboard The Elizabethan, otherwise known as Battleship Potemkin.

It also holds the annual Forest Freedom Dinner at which it embraces a wider community of businesses and people whose freedom to enjoy, say, eating and drinking certain things, is increasingly coming under attack. One of Clark’s disappointments, in fact, is that Forest has never been able to build long-term relationships with other industries that are at risk from excessive government interference. This is partly because those industries have not wanted to align themselves with the tobacco industry, partly because they have tended to stick their heads in the sand about the dangers they face from restrictive legislation and partly because Forest has been kept busy fighting the fires lit by organizations such as Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

Having said that, Forest did set up a campaign called The Free Society, through which it organized events on a range of issues not just having to do with smoking but also having to do with libertarian causes such as alcohol consumption, free speech and surveillance. The Free Society developed a loose network that worked well when it came to opposing the standardized tobacco packaging issue, where, it could be said, Forest won the argument but lost the battle to realpolitik.

No to the nanny state

Clark is careful not to rant about tobacco and tobacco legislation, but his language becomes fairly robust when on the subject of ASH. He said he thought that most people were pretty tolerant about smoking—as had been made clear by the results of a series of opinion polls on issues such as taxation and smoking bans that Forest had put together under the title Enough is Enough, and that might well have had some effect in moderating recent government policy toward tobacco. But, at the same time, there was a hard core of anti-smokers driven on by campaigns mostly funded by the public purse. Clearly aggrieved, he described as “ludicrous” the situation in the U.K. whereby public funds were given to groups such as ASH, and that money was used to lobby the government to introduce more restrictions to harass smokers.

A large part of Forest’s donations come from tobacco companies, but Clark insists that the organization’s voice is the voice of certain smokers, the voice of adults who smoke, who enjoy smoking and who don’t want to quit; it was not the voice of tobacco manufacturers. “I am passionate about maintaining Forest’s independence,” he said. And, he added, when it came to responding to requests for media comments: “We don’t have to go through a committee. We don’t have to wait for approval. We don’t have to wait for lawyers We don’t take instructions from the companies.”

Clark’s robust language is not reserved only for ASH, and he can sometimes surprise with those of whom he approves and those he doesn’t. He will tell you that at university he was one of a minority of students who were on the center-right politically, but one of the people he speaks most warmly about is the former Labour Party Health Secretary John Reid, who was not in favor of a total public smoking ban. And he described tobacco taxation—something that had soared during the past decade—as highly regressive because it had relatively little impact on those who were well-off but hurt the low-paid or elderly with modest pensions, people for whom smoking might be one of their few pleasures. Clark said it was immoral to use taxation for social engineering and to “punish” these people for consuming a legal product. “What we are seeing is an attack on ordinary working-class people,” he said.

He’s critical, also, of councils that complain about the litter caused by discarded cigarette butts but that won’t provide bins in which people can safely stub out their cigarettes on the grounds that to provide such bins would be to “re-normalize” smoking.

And he doesn’t like the U.K.’s current “nanny state,” which, he says, treats adults like children and children like idiots. Indicating his avuncular girth, he said that he would like to lose weight, but that he didn’t want the government forcing him to do so. Similarly, some smokers wanted to quit or cut down, but they didn’t want the government to force them to do so through punitive taxation or by banning smoking everywhere and making it physically impossible to smoke.

And this is where he sees smokers’ biggest challenge coming from in the future—finding a place to smoke legally. They were going to end up with very few places where they could smoke without being prosecuted, and, with tobacco being a legal product, that seemed to be an extraordinary situation.

It is perfectly possible within a civilized society to accommodate the majority who don’t smoke and the minority who do smoke, he said. Given that we could land a man on the moon, it is clearly possible, using modern, proven technology, to provide smoking and nonsmoking accommodations for people.