Health secretary John Reid's comments that smoking bans are 'an obsession of the learned middle class' catapulted the smoking debate to the top of the media agenda last week. His remarks were just part of a wave of media and political interest that lends an air of inevitability to anti-smoking legislation, as already seen in Ireland, Norway, New York and New Zealand.
'A year ago it looked like it was going nowhere,' says anti-smoking group Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) director Deborah Arnott, 'but then the chief medical officer last summer came out and called for a ban on smoking in public places.'
She adds: 'It did become easier to keep it on the media agenda and then it became easier to get it up the Government agenda. If John Reid had said what he did a year ago, I don't think it would have had the same impact. It's a momentum thing.'
Ash is part of a loose coalition of groups, such as Quit, Cancer Research UK, Asthma UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Royal College of Nursing, collaborating on initiatives such as letter writing, lobbying, marketing and research.
Research plays a key role in their media relations strategies, with Ash last week releasing a study by Mori that showed only four per cent of the public would strongly oppose a ban on smoking in the workplace and seven per cent would tend to oppose it.
'We have to get the Government to take on board that (banning smoking) is not the political risk that the hunting bill was. It isn't that unpopular,' says Arnott. 'We've been lucky because normally we would use this to lobby ministers, but there have been formal processes and inquiries, such as the Wanless report on public health.'
Arnott adds that while there is 'no shortage of opportunities' for the anti-smoking side to get its messages across, it must strike a balance between cold statistics and more human arguments.
While the anti-smoking argument gains momentum, smoker and tobacco representatives have been forced to adopt a more moderate stance, focusing on avoiding the total bans introduced in New York and Ireland.
Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) director Simon Clark says his lobby group recognises the need to find acceptable solutions for smokers and non-smokers alike. 'We've moved away from the smokers' rights debate because this embarrasses a lot of smokers,' he says.
Clark likens the approaches of Ash and Forest to those of the Conservative and Labour parties over the past decade, saying that Ash, like New Labour, gained support by taking the middle ground, while Forest was seen like Tories who were 'defending the indefensible'.
Clark claims that while Forest is now moving for the 'reasonable' middle ground, Ash has become more extreme: 'I find it ludicrous that Ash talks about the right for clean air when many of them live in the middle of London.' Endorsements from the likes of musician Joe Jackson and artist David Hockney play a key role in showing Forest supporters they are not isolated, 'because smokers have been made to feel guilty about their habit. We want a balanced debate,' argues Clark.
'We're saying to people this is your opportunity to make your views known,' he adds, pointing out that the Government is well known for leaking possible policies to gauge public opinion. Forest's website features links to politicians and organisations that its supporters can write to.
'We'll try to get more opinion pieces in the papers by people like Jackson, rather than rely on news items where we do struggle,' says Clark. 'The media aren't keen on reporting our studies, so we've become a very reactive organisation and been forced on the defensive.'
Weeding out the truth
The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (TMA) is involved in more direct political lobbying, but also grapples with media prejudice, says chief executive Tim Lord. 'We've used advertising because if we just leave it to PR, things won't happen.
'The biggest problem is that we are already demonised in the media,' he says. 'The anti-smoking groups are furious whenever anybody puts forward something they don't agree with, so we have to be as reasonable as we can. While the anti's get away with saying things like "These bastards killed x number of people", we've got to say things that are truthful.'
Rosemary Brook, client services director at Kaizo, which handles PR for the TMA, says it is faced with 'complete stonewalling' by some media, but the tobacco industry 'can't expect others to speak up on its behalf'.
Brook insists the media can be engaged with measured communications.
'It is an extremely important issue and the more public debate the better. There are options other than total bans and we need to make sure they surface in the debate,' she says.
Of course, both sides claim they want a more balanced debate, but on such an emotive issue, this is the one thing we seem unlikely to get.
SMOKING LOBBY GROUPS: THE MAJOR PLAYERS
Tobacco Manufacturers' Association - Represents UK tobacco companies. Considers links between passive smoking and disease inconclusive and insists voluntary initiatives are already improving conditions for smokers and non-smokers.
Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) - Public health charity funded in part by public health organisations. States that it does not seek a tobacco ban but recognises pubs and clubs as workplaces that should have smoking bans.
Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) - Although funded by UK tobacco companies, it represents smokers exclusively. It favours the provision of more non-smoking areas and improved ventilation, but fights legislated bans on smoking in pubs and restaurants.