Critics dub him "The Angel of Death". Supporters say he
protects freedom of choice. Meet John Carlisle, director of
public affairs at the Tobacco Manufacturers Association.
Tim Relf finds out what makes him tick in the fourth of a
series profiling well-known people with close farming ties
ONE of the first things John Carlisle does when you go in his office is offer you a cigarette. He has to, really, seeing as hes the public face of the TMA, the body representing cigarette companies.
But you cant help thinking he does it for another reason as well – to see if you smoke and, in so doing, perhaps gauge your position on the issue. To get a feel, perhaps, of whether youre going to be nice or nasty to him. Hes a man whos had his share of nastiness.
"We are, in many peoples eyes, public enemy number one," he says of the organisation he joined in 1997.
In his central London office, there are files full of letters disagreeing with his views. "Conman, liar, cheater," one proclaims, pulled at random from a "hate" file. "You may look like a nice man but you arent really," another starts, this time from a 10-year-old. "It sometimes feels," says Mr Carlisle, "like the most difficult job in Britain."
So why do it? Wouldnt it have all been so much easier – two years ago when he stood down as an MP – to have taken a directorship or two or simply retired to the Bedfordshire countryside.
One option was to go home, help his wife with her horse-riding business, do some shooting, take the dog for long walks round the estate. "That was attractive – but it wasnt attractive enough. I wanted the adrenaline; I wanted the challenge. You never know whats going to come at you next in this job."
The day before this interview, for example, cigarettes were back in the headlines – this time over claims that makers deliberately used additives to enhance addictiveness. Public Health Minister Tessa Jowell was soon involved. Mr Carlisle did 10 interviews in a day, including Channel 4s flagship seven oclock news.
He denied the additives claim. And making denials is something hes had plenty of practice at in the last couple of years. He knows all the arguments, all the counter-arguments. He even prefixes the word addiction with "so-called". Which leads him onto another argument. "Addiction itself needs definition," he begins.
But lots of jobs give you adrenaline. Why this one? Presumably you have to be a smoker to do it? Not at all, apparently. Mr Carlisle doesnt smoke – although he has the odd cigar on No Smoking Day. "Just to show solidarity with my members."
So why do it then? The rights and wrongs of smokers and smoking are, after all, one of the most contentious issues of our time. He argues the libertarian case. "Each individual adult makes their own decision."
The tobacco industry, he says, is "pilloried" by aspects of the press and by pressure groups. "My job is to counteract that."
Its a controversial area. But its not as if hes any stranger to controversy. As Tory MP for Luton between 1983 and 1997, his sporting relations with South Africa in the apartheid era earned him the label "the member for Johannes-burg" and his pro-gun stance – in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre – brought death threats. It wasnt so long ago, he recalls, that letters sometimes started "Dear Nazi".
The characteristics that made his name as an MP were probably what appealed to the TMA. "The tobacco industry enjoys similar status in peoples eyes of being a beleaguered industry. I suppose the thought was that I was fairly fearless.
"You have to be thick-skinned. If you wake up in a sweat at three in the morning worrying about what people are saying about you, you shouldnt be in this job."
But he nearly wasnt in this job – or politics. The original plan was to be a land agent but his studies at the College of Estate Management ended after two years when he "fluffed" his degree. It was probably a result, he says, of falling in love with the woman that was later to become his wife, Anthea.
After studying, he spent 14 "happy" years with grain traders Sidney C Banks before joining Louis Dreyfus. "They tempted me with a big car and a big salary."
He was getting more interested in politics, however, and in 1983 won the Luton seat. "Much to everyones surprise – including my own. Suddenly my life was turned upside down."
But what now, though, for the late-50-something father of two? He rules out a return to politics. "I think its rather sad that a lot of my colleagues who came out of parliament in 1997 and are older than me are talking about trying to get back."
Maybe the ideal, he says, would be to retire to the country, the 700-acre family farm on which he grew up, now run by relatives. "Enjoy those things in the countryside which, when you work in London, you miss."
director, Action of Smoking
"He is basically defending the indefensible. About 120,000 people a year die as a result of smoking. Appointing an old Euro-sceptic right-wing Tory MP to be the man who deals with New Labour was a strange choice by the TMA. Hes an affable bloke – but he is representing the unacceptable. Everything is going in our direction."
joint managing director,
Sidney C Banks
"He got on very well with the farmers, although sometimes they said: What are we going to get today – talk about the grain trade or talk about politics? If he had stayed in the grain trade he would have gone to the top."