Thursday, August 26, 2010

Teaching intolerance . . . spreading hate

“We were going down the street grabbing cigarettes from people and running off. It was so funny." So says one of a group of young thugs in the UK calling themselves the “Ciggy Busters”.

According to an account in the Medway Messenger, film director Margherita Gramegna, the artist in residence at the Hundred of Hoo Comprehensive School, set the students the task of devising a film about smoking. According to Gramegna, the students considered most anti-smoking commercials too tame and ineffective.

“Some of the students were smokers themselves and said that they didn’t think the current anti-smoking adverts actually worked. They thought that Chatham, in particular, needed a stronger impact - something on the street - something that could resonate better than an advert you see polished up on the telly. The final idea was to go out and literally ambush smokers and take their cigarettes off them. The adverts don’t work, so we are going to make you stop smoking.”

Ambush smokers and steal their fags? Force them to stop smoking? Huh?

So, this was apparently a school project; under (alleged) adult supervision. Just what the fuck are they teaching kids at the Hundred of Hoo Comprehensive School these days? How to be good little Nazis?

And, that's perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of this entire story. The teacher (?) and the school apparently encouraged these youngsters , providing them with video equipment, funding, and one assumes time off from their arduous school day, to accost responsible adults, with their message of intolerance and bigotry.

And, of course, the local congregation of the Holy Church of the Anti-Smoker were there to offer support.

Gramegna said she proposed the film to her students after speaking to a friend in the Public Health Directorate who said the high level of smoking was a problem for them. Support also came from “A Better Medway”, a joint initiative between the council and NHS Medway, that encourages healthy living and which partly funded the project.

In the Medway Messenger article, the author, Ruth Banks describes the students as “gutsy”. “Gutsy students from Medway have been snatching shoppers’ cigarettes, in an effort to persuade them to kick the habit.”

Gutsy? Assault and theft by self-righteous young thugs is considered gutsy? Harassing those who choose to use a perfectly legal product is gutsy? What in hell are these people thinking?

According to organizers, it was just another school outing; as innocent as a trip to the zoo. The victims, they said, were willing participants. Well, maybe not all. But, most smokers, we're told, reacted with good humour.

Said Gramegna: "I knew we could not really go and film in public and attack people in that way and take goods off of them, so we devised a cunning plan. We planted some people and we started with them. People were watching and following us and at the end we tried with some other people and they were very happy." Uh-huh.

Rachel Noxon, Medway's tobacco control strategic coordinator, said that the exchanges between students and smokers were "carefully stage-managed".

“We were going down the street grabbing cigarettes from people and running off. It was so funny."

Sounds like some of the kids didn't fully understand that it was all just make believe. Or was the “cunning plan” meant to cover the asses of the imbeciles who concocted this “learning experience” in case some disgruntled smoker smacked one of the kids upside the head? “Oh, we were just having some fun with those filthy smokers, constable. There was no need for violence.”

Video footage of the students having fun harassing and ridiculing smokers was available on You Tube, until the filming became a matter of controversy. It is no longer available. Did the video make it clear that this was a “carefully stage managed” event? Was there a “Don't try this at home” disclaimer? Or might other young people view the harassment and intimidation of smokers as acceptable behaviour? Might they think it “cool” to accost smokers and steal from them? Might they be encouraged to copy the behaviour?

The anti-smoker freaks will say they were merely providing a lesson in social activism or, trying to show the kids that the use of tobacco in modern society is no longer acceptable.

Unfortunately, they are also teaching them that intolerance and bigotry are perfectly acceptable, even admirable, character traits as long as they're attacking a government sanctioned target group. Maybe someone should explain to those “responsible” adults the difference between education and indoctrination.

Over-reaction? Maybe. But nothing like the over-reaction which would likely have ensued had I been one of those confronted by this marauding bunch of brain-washed youngsters and their brain dead mentors.

Additional Reading:
Big Brother Watch
Freedom 2 Choose

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

NS law violates freedom of expression . . . but

They say you can't fight city hall. But one Nova Scotia shopkeeper is trying to do just that.

OK, OK. He's fighting the provincial government, not city hall. But, that's a minor technicality. Fighting government at any level is usually a losing proposition. So you have to admire a man (or woman) with the courage to stand his ground and challenge laws he believes intrude on his constitutional rights.

Bob Gee is the owner of Mader Tobacco Limited in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

A little over two years ago (May,2008), Gee was charged under the Tobacco Access Act with improper display and storage of tobacco products in his shop. That's serious stuff. There's a $2,000 fine for the first conviction, escalating to $5,000 for a second offense and $10,00 for any subsequent conviction.

He pleaded not guilty to the charges in June, 2008, claiming the legislation violated his right to freedom of expression. Legal maneuvering by the crown resulted in several adjournments, until, in April, 2009, the crown announced it was staying the charges.

Unfortunately for Gee, the government also took the time to amend the legislation. The reworded law still requires store owners to keep tobacco products hidden from public view, but now allows them to display their products in a catalogue. The catalogue may be viewed by customers wishing to purchase tobacco products, but must be kept closed at all other times.

Obviously, the government felt that by allowing shopkeepers to “express” themselves via a catalogue, they could avoid the constitutional challenge.

Gee chose not to use a catalogue, believing it unreasonable to have to cover up his tobacco products, which are still legal, in a specialty tobacco shop where minors are not permitted. According to Gee, using a catalogue didn't solve the problem; the amended law still violates his right to freedom of expression, so he kept his tobacco products in full view behind the counter.

The smoke police descended on Gee's shop like a pack of hungry wolves moving in for the kill and issued two warning letters before laying charges once again under Nova Scotia's Tobacco Access Act.

But, in a
a decision Wednesday in Kentville provincial court, Judge Claudine MacDonald agreed with Gee. MacDonald ruled that displaying a product conveys a meaning and can therefore be regarded as an "expressive activity" protected by the charter. Her broad interpretation of what freedom of expression means, also suggested that the purpose of the Tobacco Access Act was "to restrict freedom of expression."

But, Gee is not off the hook just yet.

The province will still have an opportunity to argue that, despite infringing Gee’s constitutional rights, the legislation is reasonable and in the public good. A hearing will be held in early October to hear their argument. And, of course, if the crown is unsuccessful, they can still file an appeal in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court or even the Supreme Court of Canada.

And, therein lies the reason that fighting city hall is, more often than not, a losing proposition. The provincial government, with unlimited funds available from taxpayers, can carry on their vendetta for years. Small businessmen like Bob Gee, on the other hand, must bear the burden of their own legal costs which, in Gee's case are about $20,000.

Bob Gee must play David to the government's Goliath. And, he has to fight without a slingshot.

And, while Bob Gee is being dragged ever so slowly through the legal system, the legislation remains in effect.

Graham Steele, the acting minister of health promotion and protection, claims "We have a strong argument demonstrating the importance of this legislation. It’s a key piece of our work to reduce smoking rates and improve the health of Nova Scotians." Uh-huh.

But, let's face it, the idea that simply hiding cigarettes from public view will encourage adults to stop smoking or prevent kids from experimenting with cigarettes borders on lunacy. There is absolutely no statistical evidence to suggest that bans on so called “power walls” have any affect on smoking rates.

Maybe someone should point out recent claims by Health Canada that more teenagers use marijuana on a regular basis than smoke cigarettes. And, on my recent trip to the east coast, I didn't see any marijuana on display at the local convenience store.

In reality, the ban on tobacco displays in stores is just another confidence trick sold to gullible politicians by anti-smoker zealots.

Rob Cunningham, a lawyer for the Canadian Cancer Society, noted that all provinces and territories prohibit the display of tobacco products, as if that somehow justified the display ban. My kids used to push the same faulty logic; “Oh, come on Dad, everybody else is doing it.” I didn't buy it from them either.

If Steele really wants to “reduce smoking rates and improve the health of Nova Scotians”, all he has to do is have his government declare tobacco a prohibited substance. That should end the tobacco problem once and for all. Right?

But, I'm giving odds that won't happen anytime soon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Enstrom (and science) under attack . . . again

In 2003, a study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) declared no association was found between secondhand smoke and lung cancer or chronic heart disease mortality among non-smokers.

The findings of James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat were highly controversial because they contradicted the existing consensus (the popular view) that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer and chronic heart disease. In fact, the study was greeted as heresy by anti-smoker crusaders.

The BMJ was flooded with letters from anti-smoker activists criticizing the journal for publishing the study. Enstrom and Kabat were assailed because their research had been completed with funding from the tobacco industry. Treated as traitors to the cause, they were attacked on a personal, rather than a scientific level. The relative merits of the scientific evidence presented by these two reputable and respected researchers were barely discussed.

So fierce was the attack on Enstrom and Kabat that it prompted two researchers, Sheldon Unger and Dennis Bray, to write a paper entitled “ Silencing the Science”. They concluded that scientific debate is being stifled for political motives rather than the advancement of science.

And, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Unger and Bray have a solid case; that legitimate research is being suppressed when it does not conform to commonly held theories. In fact, there is evidence that some research is being squelched, not by contesting its scientific validity, but by ad hominem attacks on those who conduct the research.

Some scientists appear fearful of publishing or otherwise expressing public opposition to the general consensus for fear of retribution from vindictive colleagues who will not tolerate dissenting opinion.

For example, in May of this year, Professor Phillipe Even, former president of the reputable Necker Research Institute in France, publicly expressed his doubts about the real harm of secondhand smoke, saying: “Clearly, the harm [of secondhand smoke] is either nonexistent, or it is extremely low.”

When asked why he had not spoken out earlier, Professor Even noted: “As an official, dean of the largest medical faculty in France, I was given the obligation of confidentiality. If I had deviated from official positions, I had to pay the consequences.”

And, the consequences can be severe: loss of research funding, character assassination and loss of reputation, difficulty having research published and even dismissal from employment. If well-respected scientists like Professor Even can be intimidated into remaining silent on such matters, it suggests that significant pressure is being brought to bear to stifle legitimate scientific debate to advance political goals.

Recently, Professor Enstrom was dismissed from his position at UCLA School of Public Health; a position he has held for 34 years. Officially, his firing had nothing to do with the 2003 study by he and colleague Geoffrey Kabat on the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke. The primary reason given for his firing was that his research was “not aligned with the [Environmental Health Sciences] department's mission” to explore the relationship between environmental exposures to toxic air contaminants and human health.

Enstrom published a paper in 2005 that showed no evidence of premature deaths in California due to exposure to PM 2.5, microscopic specks of particulate matter thought to kill thousands in California each year. CARB (California Air Resources Board) is in the process of setting stringent regulations covering diesel exhaust for the trucking industry. The rationale for the regulations is numerous studies which claim PM2.5 from diesel exhaust is life threatening.

Once again, Enstrom's research conflicts with the commonly held (popular) view. And, once again, he is under attack for publicly iterating those views. In his own defense, Dr. Enstrom stated: “My work isn't about being politically correct, it's about honest research and being faithful to the science."

In an article on his blog, Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health, notes: “Dr. Enstrom was denied the opportunity to present his side of the story to the faculty. He was not permitted to present his research on fine particulate matter and mortality. He was not permitted to testify in his own defense. This is a breach of both due process and justice.”

In fact, several who have written articles commenting on this case have noted that a secret vote, taken among faculty members in his department, resulted in Enstrom's removal.

But, it should not be forgotten that Enstrom has been under attack since his 2003 study on secondhand smoke was published in the BMJ. Despite his strong anti-smoking sentiments, he has been branded a lackey of the tobacco industry and efforts have been made to have some funding sources (yes, the tobacco industry) refused at UCLA.

And, there was a rather telling comment from one his colleagues.

Beate Ritz, a leading air pollution scientist at UCLA, has apparently admitted that she hadn't even read Enstrom's latest report on air pollution. But, based on his 2003 findings that second-hand cigarette smoke doesn't kill people, she said she knows him "for letting his interpretations go beyond the data and his personal biases to be strong enough to not allow for a balanced and appropriately cautious interpretation of the numbers."

It is neither unfair, nor unreasonable to suggest that Enstrom's 2003 study on secondhand smoke was partially responsible for his dismissal; that some petty dictators were simply waiting for an excuse to punish Enstrom for breaking ranks with the anti-smoker element at UCLA and the wider academic community.

I know what you're thinking. Just why in hell should anyone give a rat's ass that some highbrow research scientist got the sack? The political machinations within the scientific community don't mean jack to the man in the street.


Scientific research is increasingly being exploited by special interest groups and politicians as the basis of public policy formation. This is especially true in the case of public health policy. And, if the science isn't open to debate; if legitimate research is dismissed simply because it doesn't conform to popular theory, then society as a whole suffers.

And, if pressure, no matter how subtle, is being applied to researchers to tailor their findings to popular theory as espoused by those with power and influence, then the science becomes corrupted; scientific credibility is diminished.

Bad science results in bad public policy. And that affects everyone. Ask any smoker as he/she stands outside, exposed to the cold and damp, to enjoy a fag.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Back to the bullshit of the anti-smoker cult

For the past few weeks, I've been enjoying a holiday on Canada's east coast; in case anyone is wondering why I haven't posted to my blog recently.

I'd almost forgotten just how truly beautiful Cape Breton Island is, especially during the height of summer. As one might expect on an island, it's practically impossible to travel for any more than an hour without coming into contact with a large body of water, either the North Atlantic which surrounds the island, or the Bras d' Or Lake which runs through the island's centre. The constant sea breeze makes the summer heat much more bearable than that experienced in Ontario, for example.

And, the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape provided the perfect complement to the meeting and greeting of family and old friends. In addition, the weather co-operated beautifully, adding immensely to the enjoyment of my first visit “home” in eight years.

I spent most of my time at my younger brother's place in the town where I grew up after coming from Scotland well over half a century ago. But, the highlight of the trip was a four day “family reunion”.

My sister-in-law had rented a boy scout camp situated at the base of Kelly's Mountain on the shores of the Bras d' Or. It was an ideal location, centrally situated as a jumping off spot for day trips to just about any tourist attraction on the island, including the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Having grown up on the island, I eschewed most of the day trips; the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, the Fortress of Louisburg, the Miners Museum, etc. I was content to sit on the back porch of the bunk house/mess hall and break open the odd beer (Alexander Keith's finest), while puffing away on a Putter's Light (imported from Ontario's First Nations) and shooting the breeze and swapping stories with my siblings and other family members.

The scout camp, in addition to the picturesque setting, had one additional advantage. Isolation. It was a mile or more in any direction to the nearest signs of “civilization”.

In any sizable gathering of family, this can be of great importance, especially when the family members are prone to party with some abandon. And, every night, with the youngsters tucked safely in their beds, we lit up the camp fire, broke out the guitars and yingle sticks, cracked a few brew and partied to the wee hours of the morning.

Perhaps it's a sign of age, but I realized the first night that I would no longer be among the last to leave the smoldering remains of the camp fire. The lying bastard who described old age as the “golden years” deserves a kick in the ass.

And, the trip resulted in an unexpected benefit. Despite gorging myself on an array of fresh sea food and quaffing a significant quantity of pale ale, I somehow managed to shed eight pounds.

I suggested in one of my last posts before heading out to the coast that, if I could get access to a computer, I might continue writing a regular column during my trip. That obviously hasn't happened.

It's not that I didn't have access to a computer. There were over half a dozen laptops, with their little wireless connections to the net, available at any given time. The younger generation can't seem to function without the damn things. So, I could have written an article or two . . . if I'd wanted. But, the truth is, I didn't even bother to read the blogs that usually comment on the upside down world of the anti-smoker.

I was having too good a time to let myself be distracted by the antics of the lunatic fringe.

But, the holiday is over. I'm back in the big city. And, the first blog site I visited on my return was that of anti-smoking activist, Dr. Michael Siegel. He was commenting on a new ordinance enacted by the Middletown (New York) City Council which could make smoking in a park a criminal offense resulting in jail time. Uh-huh.

It's the kind of anti-smoker bullshit that brings the anger bubbling back and makes a man want to start writing letters to the brain dead politicians who pass these ridiculous laws, and posting caustic comments on a blog dedicated to counteracting the propaganda efforts of the the anti-smoker crowd.

So, just a few observations on my visit to the coast.

The anti-smoking laws in Nova Scotia are similar to the rest of Canada, meaning smoking in pubs, clubs and bingo halls is verboten. Sin taxes are more punitive than most provinces, with smokers spending up to $15 in government sponsored extortion for a pack of 25. Fortunately, I paid a visit to Canada's First Nations before heading out to the coast. Forewarned is fore-armed.

Smoking in vehicles carrying minors (anyone less than 19 years of age) is, of course, cause for a fine. I didn't get an answer to my question about what happens to an eighteen year old smoker who is also the driver. Do they charge the driver for subjecting himself to the bogus hazard of secondhand smoke? Or, is the 18 year old driver exempt if his passengers are 19 or older?

I suspect that the scout camp where we spent four days with family was probably considered a public space under the anti-smoker rules. The odd thing was that, despite the fact that there were no “No Smoking” signs in evidence at the camp, and there was no one around to enforce the rules even if signs had been posted, no one lit up indoors.

A testament to common courtesy (and common sense) or the result of the thorough indoctrination by the anti-smoker cult? It's debatable, I suppose.

Although roughly half the adults present were smokers, they confined their smoking to the back porch, or the fire pit. Nor was there any evidence of litter. Butts were placed in two large cans at either end of the porch or thrown into the pit. It was amazing how easily potential conflict between smokers and non-smokers was resolved and made a non-issue.

Of course, we also had a camp free of the bullshit and bafflegab of the anti-smoker zealots..

At any rate, it was a great holiday.