Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Plain Cigarette Packaging

Australia (which BFTF is always minded to pronounce as Auuussstrraaaaliaaaa in the style of a famous 1980s BT advert) recently introduced draft legislation that would remove all branding from cigarette packaging as part of efforts to reduce the level of smoking in the country.

The response of the tobacco industry was to launch a multi-million dollar campaign against the changes. Simon Chapman (Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Australia) has summarised the arguments of the tobacco industry before, very easily, demolishing them in a article in the New Scientist. In essence, the tobacco industry suggests that :

a) there is "no real evidence" to support the policy
b) Use of plain packaging would represent a "seizure of their intellectual property"
c) Plain packaging would result in a rise in counterfeit cigarettes

This is of relevance to the UK because the Government here is also considering similar legislation. A government report earlier this year (report earlier this year ("Healthy Lives, Healthy People") contained a number of disturbing statements suggesting that the government was taking the views of the tobacco industry seriously.

In turn, this has provoked BFTF into writing the following message (with slight amendments as required) to both Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health (web form here) and to Stephen Williams MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health (email : stephenwilliamsmp@parliament.uk)

Dear Mr Williams
I would like to thank the Government and the APPG on Smoking and Health for setting targets for smoking reduction (as outlined in the Healthy Lives, Healthy People report of 9th March this year) and hope that you are able to achieve the reductions aimed for.

One aspect that does cause concern, however, related to proposals for plain cigarette packaging. . .

I note that the “Healthy Lives, Healthy People” report expresses concern regarding the efficacy of plain packaging, the increased risk of counterfeiting, and the issue of “competition, trade and legal implications”. Simon Shapman (professor of public health at the University of Sydney, Australia) has discussed some of these issues in a recent article in New Scientist (“Time to pack it in”, 30th April Issue, P22). As you are no doubt aware, Australia has released draft legislation to remove branding from cigarette packaging.

Efficacy
Regarding the efficacy of plain packaging he points out that, in Australia, Tobacco companies have poured some $10million into “a proxy campaign against the plan. . . from the hitherto unknown ‘Alliance of Australian Retailers’”. He adds that many Australians are wondering “if it won’t work, why is the industry bothering to waste its money campaigning to hard against it?”

Perhaps most persuasive are the words of a 2008 cover story in the Trade Journal ‘Tobacco Journal International’ which simply, and presumably accurately, said “Plain Packaging can kill your business”

I could go on – and on – regarding this point, but I hope that is not necessary.

Counterfeiting
Mr Williams, I would not wish to insult your intelligence by pointing out that the world is awash with counterfeiters who can mimic Levi’s jeans, Rolex watches and even entire Apple Computer Stores. They are unlikely to find the manufacture of a small cardboard box graced with a Silk Cut logo a particularly difficult hurdle to clear.

Legal Issues
According to Mark Davison, professor of law at Monash University in Victoria regards the intellectual property argument of the tobacco industry as being, “so weak, it’s non-existent” and that while WTO rules prevent others from using a trademark, they do not provide an absolute right to use it yourself.

In summary, I would encourage the APPG on Smoking and Health to resist the misleading arguments of the tobacco industry and submit legislation for plain packaging at the earliest opportunity.


A message was also sent out to a number of local mosques suggesting that this was an area where common cause could be found with the wider society in achieving a social good and that the mosques may wish to send similar messages to lobby for plain packaging on cigarettes. Doing so would not only help to achieve this social good but would also demonstrate to the Muslim community that this kind of action is very much part of being an active British Muslim.

It does not really need stating that politicians are much more likely to pay attention to a community organisation (such as a mosque) than they are to individuals.

Dear Reader, perhaps there is an issue of some kind that is concerning you - if so, perhaps you would like to consider directing your complaints towards the people who can make difference (MP's, organisations etc). . .

UPDATE (12 SEP 11)
Recently received a response from the Department of Health which stated that the Government had:
"taken full account of all the concerns raised by all those with an interest in this issue – retailers, the tobacco industry, as well as public health and NHS practitioners and organisations".

It goes on to say that the Government believes that the changes strike the right balance between:
"the expected public health benefits in the long term, with mitigating burden on business at the current time.

Regarding the issue of plain packaging, the response merely repeats the Governments position by stating:
"The Government has an open mind on plain packaging and will explore the competition, trade and legal implications and the likely impact on the illicit tobacco market of options around tobacco packaging."

Overall, the response does not give me a sense that there has been any process of engagement, or that the specific comments made by BFTF regarding plain packaging have been taken on board.

UPDATE (10 SEP 12)
With the legislation having been in place for several months now, BFTF wondered what the effect had been, so asked the DoH and also a local supermarket. Feedback hopefully coming soon.

UPDATE (03 OCT 12)
Recently received a response from the DoH:
"The legislation ending permanent open public displays of tobacco products is being introduced because there is evidence that tobacco displays in shops can promote smoking by young people and undermine the resolve of adults who are trying to quit. People who smoke and are addicted to nicotine will continue to be able to buy cigarettes and tobacco in the normal way. There is, therefore, unlikely to be a large immediate effect on tobacco sales. The aim is to help to protect future generations of children from unsolicited promotion of tobacco through product displays.

You may also be aware that the legislation will not be implemented in the majority of smaller shops until April 2015. Clearly this phasing will also delay the overall impact of the legislation. However, you may also be interested to know that the legislation includes a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to evaluate the effect of the legislation by April 2020."
Update Jan 2015
It's now over THREE YEARS since this post first started to cover the issue of plain cigarette packing, and it sickening that the UK government STILL hasn't introduced the relevant legislation - a tardiness that has not been seen in many other areas of Government health policy.

So exasperated has the UK's medical community become that some 4,000 health professionals have recently signed an open letter to the PM and Health Secretary concerned that PP legislation will not be introduced before the election, as had been expected.

Five times as many signed the letter as had signed a similar open letter supporting a ban on smoking in cars, a measure that the government, in contrast, will actually introduce.

The letter points out that:
"over half a million children have taken up smoking since the government first announced it would consult on plain standardised packaging of cigarette packs in 2011 and every day hundreds more join them”.

and also dismisses government claims that delays are due to the EU.

Meanwhile, in Australia, recent research looking at the effect of the 2012 introduction of plain cigarette (PP) packaging in Australia (see here) concludes that :

"Since implementation of PP along with larger warnings, support among Australian smokers has increased. Support is related to lower addiction, stronger beliefs in the negative health impacts of smoking, and higher levels of quitting activity."

The report also notes that support from smokers to the packaging changes has increased from 28% before the change to 49% today, with the strongest support was among smokers who intended to quit.

Co-author David Hammond comments that:
"The study adds to a growing evidence base that will reassure regulators that the sky will not fall if they introduce plain packaging, as the tobacco companies have suggested".

Sunday, 28 August 2011

BFTF Washing Up Index

Whilst they may be great chefs, there is one aspect of cookery that Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver or Gordon "I can swear for England" Ramsey are always strangely silent on - the Washing Up.

Just as some dishes are easy to make and some are hard, so some dishes result in virtually no washing up at all - while other produce washing up that requires the use of jackhammers and a gritblaster to sort out.

Perhaps those celebrity chefs lead a charmed life, where there is always someone else to do the washing up - but BFTF (and no doubt yourself, dear reader) has to live in the real world where it would be good to know what the washing up implications of a particular dish were.

To help out with this, BFTF has compiled a "Washing Up Index", which is shown below. All the recipes on this blog will include a "Washing Up Index" rating, so that you know where you stand.

BFTF "Washing Up Index"
VERY HARDLots of stuff stuck to plates and dishes, significant soaking may be required, likely to clog sink
HARDLots of stuff stuck to plates and dishes, likely to clog sink
MEDIUMGood clean required but everything breaks up easily and does not clog sink
EASYSome care and a little elbow grease required
VERY EASYLittle or nothing to wash, everything comes off easily
It would be great to know if you have any dishes that have unusually low or high Rating on the Index. . .

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Killings in Syria - What can you do?

It is difficult to imagine how anyone can see the way in which the Syrian authorities are reacting to the street protests there without feeling compassion for the protestors and anger that that government in a Muslim country can treat its Muslim population in such a manner.

The concern is magnified by the fact that past experience (such as the massacre of thousands in Hama in 1982(see here)) suggests that the government will, in the end, have no qualm about killing whole swathes of its population to achieve its ends..

The account of the Syrian author Samar Yazbek (see here), who was detained by the Syrian authorities earlier this year, provides a graphic description of the torture that detainees are subjected to:
"The bodies were nearly naked. There was a dim light seeping in from somewhere, feeble rays for enough vision to discern that they were youths of no more than 20 years old. Their fresh young bodies were clear beneath the blood. They were suspended from their hands in steel cuffs, and their toes barely touched the floor. Blood streamed down their bodies, fresh blood, dried blood, deep bruises visible like the blows of a random blade. Their faces looked down; they were unconscious, and they swayed to and fro like slaughtered animals"

She goes on to describe the sounds of torture that she heard:

"Abruptly they took me out of the cell and opened another, and as they did so, the sounds of screaming and torture came from somewhere. Never had I heard such sounds of pain. They did not stop until we left the passage."

So what can on ordinary person do to stop the killings and torture?

It’s a difficult one to answer, but one thing that has been mentioned by a virtually all guests on the Building for the Future Radio show, is that is does not take emails or letters from as many people as you might think to provoke a change. With this in mind, BFTF has tried to contact the organisations who may be able to help stop the killings, starting with the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference)

The OIC (www.oic-oci.org)website contains a number of statements calling on the Syrian authorities to stop the killing of protestors, although it stops short of condemning the authorities outright.

"I welcome the statements that the OIC has made against the killing and torture of protestors in Syria. However, I strongly feel that the OIC should unequivocally condemn the killings and take practical steps to stop the killings and indiscriminate torture of civilians that is happening there. A Muslim country should be a place of safety for Muslims, not a place where arbitrary death and torture can happen at any time. I am concerned that the OIC will not do anything substantive until a massacre like that in Hama in 1982 occurs, or that the OIC is waiting for the West to do its job for it. My question to you at the end of this is : What powers does the OIC have to stop the killing in Syria and how does it propose to use them?"
Perhaps the most representative Muslim body in the UK is the MCB, and they have issued a press release (see here) and shown below:

"The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) today welcomed the recent but belated condemnation by the United Nations of the Syrian government’s crackdown of its own people. For months now the regime has attacked innocent protestors who are making legitimate demands for human rights, representative government and the rule of law. . . The MCB has already spoken out against abuses elsewhere in the region and today re-iterates its call that our government must be consistent in its policy of demanding that Arab governments in the region respond to the democratic wishes of its people... "

BFTF sent an email to the MCB saying :

"I just wanted to thank you for the press release your have issued regarding the Syrian authorities killing and torture of protestors. An accusation that is widely laid against the Muslim community (with some justification) is that Muslims protest when non-Muslims kill Muslims but are silent when it is Muslims killing Muslims. As a community we must do a better job of being consistent about human rights abuses. Your press statement is a step along this road. Thank you again. May I ask what message you have given the Syrian government (or their embassy in the UK) regarding the killings in Syria and what their response has been.

The other regional body who, one would think, would be interested in stopping the killings is the Arab League (www.arableagueonline.org). The English language section of their website is “under construction” (how very 1990’s) so I have no way of contacting them. A Google translation of the Arabic section of their website suggests no statements on what is happening in Syria. Grasping at straws somewhat, BFTF sent an email to the MCB asking them to forward it on to the Arab League:
“I am dismayed by the silence of the Arab League regarding the killing and torture of protestors in Syria. A Muslim country should be a place of safety for Muslims, not a place where arbitrary death and torture can happen at any time. An accusation that is widely laid against the Muslim community (with some justification) is that Muslims protest when non-Muslims kill Muslims but are silent when it is Muslims killing Muslims. The inaction of the Arab League feeds this perception. My question for you, at the end of this, is to ask why you have not taken any substantive measures to stop the killing and torture in Syria”
BFTF also contacted the Syrian Embassy in London (www.syremb.com), using the Feedback form on their website, leaving the following message:
“I, alongside much of the UK’s population (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) have been appalled by the killing and torturing of innocent protestors that we are seeing in Syria. Frankly, the authorities - and yourselves- should be ashamed at allowing this kind of indiscriminate cruelty to be unleashed on the population. A Muslim country should be a place of safety for Muslims, not a place where arbitrary death and torture can happen at any time. My question, at the end of this, is to ask what pressure you are placing on the authorities in Syria to stop the killings, beatings and torture of protestors. Please do not think of comparing what is happening in Syria to the recent riots in the UK. You and I both know that the violence unleashed by the Syrian authorities is of an altogether different order."

Lastly, BFTF emailed local mosques suggesting that they may wish to lobby the Syrian Embassy on behalf of their congregations - and tell their congregations that they are doing so.

Also personally contacted my local masjid to ask them whether they could send an email to the Syrian Embassy if BFTF was to draft one up for them.

Dear Reader, if you feel strongly about the human rights abuses in Syria, or indeed in any other country, you may wish to lobby the relevant organisations (as described above). It may not be perfect, but group action really does work, and it certainly works better than just complaining to your friends about the situation.

Or perhaps you feel that BFTF has got the wrong end of the stick and that there are much more effective practical steps that can be taken to stop the killings in Syria. If so, why not leave a comment with your suggestions or, er, comments.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Art, Rick Davies and Michael Hansmeyer

The arts represents perhaps one of the largest minefields for British Muslims to navigate due to the conflicting messages they receive.

For example, on the one hand Islamic Bookshops will have literature stating that photography of living objects is forbidden - whilst on the other hand Islamic magazines will readily print pictures of contributors.

Similarly, the reading and writing of novels is condemned as idleness by some Muslims (see here for the battles that a Saudi fiction writer has to go through) - whilst at the same time, a prominent Muslim charity is running the Muslim Writers Awards.

Crikey, talk about not knowing what to do for the best!

Stepping back a little to consider the wider arts situation in the UK, it is perhaps the case that it is worth looking at the common ground between Muslim communities and the wider society rather than focussing on what divides them. For example, the council art galleries in many towns hold a number of exhibitions each year, all of which are ignored completely by Muslim organisations.

But is that really fair? Perhaps some (indeed, perhaps all) of these exhibitions are just as much of interest to Muslim communities as they are to the wider society. Perhaps these "common ground" exhibitions are a useful way for Muslim communities to engage with the wider society. . .

Let's take a practical example.

There is currently an exhibition (see here) by photographer Rick Davies at the Ffoto Gallery at the Dairy(?!) in Cardiff. The Guardian describes the images as "panoramic photos of Wales' changing landscape" and goes on to say that "hi-tech plants can be seen as far as the eye can see like a city of the future, though rows of cars. . .show this is present day". The review goes on to remark that "train tracks, metal pipes and monster mining operations seem to overshadow the mountains in the distance".

This exhibition sounds really interesting and thought provoking! The nature of the relationship between industry and the countryside is something that is a concern for all communities in the UK. What's not to like?

Or, to take another example, the New Scientist (30th April edition) has a fascinating article about the computer generated geometric sculptures of Michael Hansmeyer. Some of these have over a million facets and need to be constructed by cutting out individual one millimetre layers and then stacking them up. You can see some examples of his work here. Again, Michael’s geometric patterns seem to be in keeping with Islamic tradition and to offer the possibility of making some genuinely new structural forms.

Perhaps, if Muslim organisations supported exhibitions like this, it would help to remove the perception that Muslims communities only engage with arts bodies when they want to complain about something. It might also help British Muslims to constructively engage with the arts community instead of placing themselves away from it. The reality is that by being silent in this area, our mainstream Muslim organisations are leaving the extreme elements as the only ones defining the relationship between Muslims and the arts, and their definition is one that is very destructive and disrespectful of the artistic heritage of this country.

Since actions, rather than words, are the focus of this blog, BFTF has sent out the following:

Nottingham Contemporary
An email to say that the work of Rick Davies and Michael Hansmeyer look really interesting and it would be great to see their work exhibited in Nottingham. As someone from the Muslim community in Nottingham, I think that this kind of work lies in the "common ground" where the artistic traditions of the Muslim communities and the wider society overlap. Should you be in a position to host exhibitions of work similar to that of Davies or Hansmeyer, you may wish to consider contacting some of Nottingham’s Muslim organisations (Mosques etc) to see if they are would like to view the exhibition and, perhaps, recommend it to their communities.

Jammat Ahle Sunnat and Nottingham Council's Muslim Communities facilitator
Sent email summarising this post, in particular the bit saying the if the Muslim community does not engage with wider society then someone else is probably going to do it on their behalf.

Update (15 Aug 2011)
Received a response from Nottingham Contemporary saying thanks and that they would pass on the email to the exhibitions team.