Gilmore: 'One could end up looking evangelical'

By James Wilmore

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Alcoholic beverage

It is a little-known fact, but the Royal College of Physicians, where Professor Ian Gilmore is currently president, founded the group Action on...

It is a little-known fact, but the Royal College of Physicians, where Professor Ian Gilmore is currently president, founded the group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

"It was in 1962 that our work started on a ban - it was 45 years before we got it," he says.

Though he is now focused on campaigning on alcohol, Gilmore still has plenty to say about the smoking ban. And he is convinced it has been a success.

"I'm sure we are in a better place than we would have been without the ban," he says.

"The figures are encouraging, but there's still a long way to go - there's still a disappointing number of young people smoking."

This is an understandable position for a man who has seen the effects that smoking can have on the human body.

But undoubtedly some in the pub trade would disagree with his assessment that the ban has been a success.

A sharp drop in trade has hit many hard, while the new breed of pub customer - who, it was suggested, would flock through pubs' doors - has not emerged. Sympathy for pubs?

So does the professor have any sympathy for pubs that have seen a nosedive in trade?

"I have sympathy for businesses where the goalposts have moved beyond their control and it affects their trade," he says.

"But the case was overwhelming and as a citizen I find pubs much more acceptable to go into."

As with the health lobby's current campaign on alcohol, there are concerns about just how far campaigners want to push things.

In two Californian cities tenants in apartment buildings are banned from lighting up.

And when Gilmore makes comments in relation to pubs such as "now one has to hold one's breath as one walks through the door past the people smoking", you can appreciate the concerns of any anti-smoking ban, or even pro-ban, licensee.

So can the professor assure the trade the health lobby has no plans to push for a ban on smoking outside pubs? He takes a second or two, but responds: "There are no plans to stop people smoking in the fresh air, wherever that fresh air may be."

But on a solemn note Gilmore explains that people choosing to stand outside to smoke, shivering in the cold, demonstrates that tobacco is a "drug of addiction".

He also adds that the health lobby is not "trying to stop individuals who currently smoke from being able to buy or smoke cigarettes".

Some more hard-line opponents of the ban argue it is an erosion of their human rights.

What does Gilmore make of this? "I understand anyone's concerns about their civil liberties being eroded," he says. "But in any society you have to look for a balance between the individual and the population."

The new battleground

That balance is being called into question with the current debate around alcohol-related issues. But the health lobby has already acknowledged that the debates around alcohol are far more complex.

As one lobbyist put it there is no "magic bullet" with booze. With smoking there was passive smoking, but with alcohol it is different.

And Gilmore freely admits this. "It's much more complex and alcohol has been a part of society for a lot longer than smoking," he concedes.

"It's not such an addictive substance for the majority of people. And it probably has some beneficial social effects and possibly some direct health benefits. I don't go around knocking the idea that alcohol may be beneficial. One could end up looking like one is taking an evangelical line."

However, Gilmore suggests the harm alcohol can cause if abused can be more widespread than that caused by smoking.

"Fifty per cent of domestic violence is almost certainly fuelled by alcohol, then there's damage to unborn children, street violence, drink-driving - there is a catalogue of harm that is considerably greater than smoking," he says. "We need to emphasise that it is a major problem with alcohol misuse."

And with alcohol now firmly in the government's sights, the media profile of people such as Gilmore has risen.

Much of this is due to his position as chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) - a group of 24 health bodies, campaigning for, among other things, a 10 per cent increase in alcohol tax.

So how did AHA feel about the recent Budget hike on alcohol? "We were pleased the government acknowledged a higher-than-inflation duty rise was appropriate," he says.

"But we live in the real world and realise the government has many other pressures on it." The disappointment in the trade about these rises has been well documented. One argument has been that the rises penalise the majority of responsible drinkers.

So does Gilmore have any time for the concept of personal responsibility? He replies: "Clearly personal responsibility is a key factor in society and if individuals don't exercise that in the way they behave in relation to their neighbours then clearly society would break down.

"But personal responsibility cannot be the only tool in the toolbox."

Of course, many in the pub trade point the finger squarely at the off-trade when it comes to issues around responsible drinking.

Encouragingly for the on-trade as well, an increasing number of MPs are now familiar with the terms "below-cost selling" and "loss-leader". Does Gilmore recognise the impact these cheap deals are having? "Yes I do," he says. "The differential price between the on-trade and the off-trade is the biggest single concern I've got - and there is evidence that the gap is rising."

After all this talk of drink, it only seems right to offer the professor a tipple for answering our questions - but he politely declines.

"I would probably think it would be unwise to accept a drink even though I would be grateful for the spirit in which it is offered," he says.

And his favourite pub? He is not specific, but says: "I'm a supporter of country pubs - when the landlord is responsible, by not serving people who are underage or drunk."

Gilmore on the Licensing Act

Gilmore was an outspoken critic of the Licensing Act when it was introduced, arguing that it "flew in the face of common sense".

So what does he make of the changes now? "I understood looking at staggering closing times," he says. "But it seemed the entirely wrong time to do it for me, with the background of a rising tide of alcohol-related harm - social, criminal and health. I still feel that it was essentially an inappropriate time to change the legislation."

Gilmore concedes that it may be true that alcohol consumption has been falling for the past two years, as the British Beer & Pub Association has said.

But he says figures could be distorted by the fact that fewer people are drinking: "It's quite likely that those who are drinking could be drinking more."

Gilmore CV

Professor Ian Thomas Gilmore, MD

Age​: 61

Educated​: Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; King's College, Cambridge; St Thomas' Hospital, London

Current positions​: president, Royal College of Physicians, London; consultant physician and gastroenterologist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospitals (1980-present); honorary professor for the Department of Medicine, University of Liverpool; chairman, Alcohol Health Alliance

1979-80 Medical Research Council Travelling Fellowship at University of California, San Diego

1978-9 and 1980 Charing Cross Hospital, senior medical registrar in general medicine and gastroenterology

1976-7 MRC research fellow, gastrointestinal laboratory, St.Thomas' Hospital, honorary senior medical registrar

Family​: married with three children

Hobbies​: enjoys golf

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