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Q&A: Duncan Bannatyne

The entrepreneur discusses his philanthropy and anti-smoking campaigning

Duncan Bannatyne, 60, the Dragons' Den star, is one of the UK's leading entrepreneurs with an estimated £320 million fortune. He is also a leading philanthropist and is a Trustee of Comic Relief. He is president of the charity No Smoking Day, as well as Quit's UK Children's Champion. Here he talks to Sean Carey about cigarette smoking in the UK and Africa.

Not everyone who is a former smoker becomes an anti-smoking activist. What's the motivation?

Well, although I used to smoke I now find that other people's smoking affects me quite a lot - it makes me cough, makes my eyes sting and all the rest of it. So I'm very aware of it at a personal level. But I have long been very concerned about the effect of cigarette smoke on young children's health. So when I was approached to become president of No Smoking Day in 2008, and earlier this year to become Quit's UK Children's Champion, I jumped at the chance. I'm just lucky that I have a public profile because of my television work. It comes in very useful for these sorts of campaigns.

Some people regard smoking tobacco as a fundamental human right and argue that any attempt to control the consumption of cigarettes by consenting adults is a restriction on human liberty. How do you respond?

I think in many ways they are right. Smokers should be allowed to go into a locked room and have as many cigarettes as they want, and then come out again when they've finished. But they have no right to smoke in front of children, or other adults who for one reason or another don't like cigarette smoke. But there's a point here which is often missing from the argument put forward by libertarians; when I speak to smokers I find that the vast majority would like to stop but for one reason or another find that they can't. They're victims in other words-- they're no longer freely choosing to smoke but are simply addicted to tobacco.

So what do you say to them?

I tell smokers that the only way to give up is by using a lot of willpower and by remembering that cigarettes are not only damaging their health but also cost a lot of money. I know that it's not easy -- I smoked for five years and it was only on the fifth time of trying to give up that I was successful. But I know from personal experience that going about one's daily business without gagging for a cigarette is fantastic -- life's just so much better without tobacco.

How does championing anti-smoking initiatives compare to the day job?

The big difference is that I don't make any money out of it. And another difference is that I get a lot of stick because of it. For example, the smokers' lobby group, Forest, wrote an article on their website a few weeks ago with the headline, "Ban Bannatyne" before launching a personal attack on me.

On the other hand, occasionally someone will come up to me and say that I played a part in inspiring them to give up cigarettes which is wonderful. And I take great satisfaction from the fact that in the UK the number of smokers is constantly falling -- it's less than 20 per cent of the adult population at the moment. The big challenge now is to stop children under the age of 18 taking up the habit. In the UK the tobacco companies don't sell cigarettes to children but they know very well that children smoke and don't do anything to prevent it, so it's up to the rest of us to help in any way we can.

Do you think that the UK government has done enough in terms of anti-smoking initiatives?

No, it hasn't. The authorities in England were a year behind those in Scotland banning smoking in pubs and they're still lagging behind. For example, there's no sensible reason why cigarettes should still be sold in vending machines where children can get access to them or why they are still on open display behind the tills in shops and supermarkets. In some European countries like Ireland, for example, they are locked away which I think is the way forward. I also think that it's crazy that it's still legal in this country that someone can drive a car with a newborn baby strapped in it and smoke as many cigarettes as they want without consideration for the infant's health. We should follow the lead set by some Australian states like New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania and make that sort of behaviour illegal.

As an entrepreneur you will appreciate that the tobacco industry remains economically and politically very powerful. Because of increasing restrictions in many Western countries, it will look to markets overseas, especially where regulations governing tobacco use and sales are weak or non-existent, to maintain or even increase profits. What to do?

In many African countries like Nigeria, Malawi and Mauritius, cigarette smoking is promoted through the use of advertising billboards and sponsorship of music concerts where free cigarettes are handed out. I found when I visited Malawi that often there is no age restriction on those attending these concerts or, if there is, there is no one on the door making sure that young people cannot get in.

What I have also observed in these countries is that among the very poor a single cigarette might be passed around by five or six children which means that they're all likely to develop the habit. In Mauritius, for example, I came across examples of children as young as five who were smoking which was truly shocking -- these kids had absolutely no idea that cigarettes could damage their health. And it was interesting that the warnings printed on the side of cigarette packets in Mauritius were often in tiny letters and in English which is not the language spoken there. But it's not all one-way traffic -- the Nigerian government is suing the tobacco companies. Whether they will win or not I don't know, but I hope that more developing countries will follow their example.

Is there any evidence that some tobacco companies are worse than others in the sales and marketing tactics that they employ in the developing world?

I think that they are all a pretty bad lot. However, I notice that a lot of people at the top of the tobacco companies are often not smokers themselves, although they seem quite happy to con other people and take their money from them. But what I can't understand is why they are so focused on cigarettes and don't have any other plans for the future even when sales are likely to fall in the long run. If I was running those companies I wouldn't try and sell cigarettes in Africa for a penny a time but instead diversify into hotels, shopping centres, or health clubs, where there is a lot more money to be made. So even from a business point of view it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. There are all sorts of opportunities out there -- there's really no need for anyone to sell cigarettes to earn a living.

Dr Sean Carey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University and Fellow of the Young Foundation.