What it’s like to represent smokers on live radio (and television)

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What it’s like to represent smokers on live radio (and television)

A friend asked me recently what speaking on live radio was really like as he had never done so himself.

Today is a good time to update that conversation as I was guest on Cork96FM yesterday to discuss the simple issue of smuggled tobacco.

The equation here is pretty simple. As a smoker of over 40 years I never remember cheap smuggled tobacco products being available until about ten years ago. Twenty cigarettes cost the exact same as a pint of beer in 1974 and neither were worthy of much comment regarding price.

The anti-tobacco movement though began to wade in and lobbied endlessly for the price of tobacco to be increased. This has gone on relentlessly for ten years now with the result that today the pint costs €3.70 (in my local), and 20 cigarettes cost €10.20 in the nearest shop.

The average price of 20 cigarettes in the EU is approximately €5, being higher in some countries and lower in others. It doesn’t take a genius therefore to figure out where the blame for the epidemic of smuggling lies. Those who have campaigned for price increases and those who have listened to them and complied with their wishes, must share the responsibility. It is truly that obvious and simple.

There is no need for any kind of expensive research as the answer is staring us all in the face. If the Government did the same thing to coffee and to the same extent you could be sure the criminal fraternity would source cheap coffee elsewhere and offer it from the boot of a car at half the price. Oddly, though, if the commodity was coffee there would be no confusion over where the buck stopped. Coffee drinkers would feel quite justified buying from the criminals and there would be calls for price realignment with the EU average.

That then was the gist of what I had to say yesterday to the presenter. But it began with the introduction of yours truly and this was phrased in terms suggesting that there was simply no defence of smoking in any shape or form and I could not possibly justify it to the listeners. It’s important to remember at this point that the invitation from them was to discuss a report on the extent of tobacco smuggling, not to justify smokers and their habit. So that is point one. When the presenter happens to hate us smokers they will contrive to present us in a bad light before I get a chance to begin. In essence it undermines both you and I and our message.

Then there is the hectoring. In a proposed debate with a fanatical smoke-hater one morning no debate took place. The anti-person was given the microphone first for seven uninterrupted minutes of propaganda with the presenter humming her agreement to each and every point. Then she turned to me, fired seven questions in a continuous burst before sitting back smugly. I dealt with the first of these by making a simple one-sentence point and she was on to me like lightening. “How could you possibly make such an outlandish claim John?” Her voice was confrontational and I got about one more interrupted minute before she cut across me to announce they were going to the news. Oh, and that interview was on live TV. Impartiality is increasingly hard to find.

On a prime time slot on national radio a few years back I was asked the reasonable question, “Why do smokers smoke?” Having spoken to so many smokers about this I replied, “Because they enjoy it.” The well-known presenter came back quickly with “Ah here! That’s enough of that” and my line went dead. I was silenced at the push of a button for having the nerve to suggest that we liked our cigarettes. The received wisdom, put about by non-smokers, is that we hate them and to suggest otherwise is akin to defending genocide. I don’t know what it’s like where you live but where I live having a smoke is as normal as having a coffee or a pint.

So what’s it like on live radio? Well, it’s fine if you are trotting out something PC in a droll voice from a script but if you are on to say something that goes against the prevailing wisdom, even if you are have a right to hold your views, you will be attacked in a most unpleasant way. The methodology is to attack the speaker, not the sentiment expressed. Some smokers complain bitterly about Forest and what we try to do because they claim we are not bullish enough for their liking. But if I said some of the things I have been urged by them to say the smoker’s standpoint would never be heard again. Forest would be blacklisted and never invited to add balance to any debate on smoking. That would clear the field for extreme elements on the other side to demand anything they want, including the prohibition of tobacco nationwide.

To give you an idea of just how extreme things currently are, last week in the Dail Billy Kelleher (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail) 
asked the Minister for Health about the “percentage of existing disability residential houses and units that are compliant with the HSE tobacco free campus policy”. These are helpless individuals in residential care, which has a long history of treating service users very roughly indeed. It would appear that Billy Kelleher can ignore the inhumane treatment meted out to these people in favour of making sure they can never enjoy a relieving smoke. You and I are paying Billy handsomely and he is using our faith in him to raise such appalling questions during government time.

But if I issued a press release about it and got on radio to complain about Billy’s question I would be attacked from all sides. For the Forest Ireland spokesperson that’s what it’s like to be on live radio.