Improving public health is a responsibility that has been mostly switched from the NHS to local authorities. Of course, if people stop smoking that is one means of achieving it. What councils should do about it is another matter. There is the constraint that smoking is a matter of personal choice and that smokers are already aware that they are indulging in a habit which is damaging to their health. That means that nannying campaigns with municipal operatives going about with clipboards asking smokers if they have thought of quitting hardly represent value for money.
Sometimes councils appear to be more interested in smugness and box ticking than in practical results. The Local Declaration on Tobacco Control offers an example of this.
The LGDTC was developed by the state-funded professional lobby group ASH in the run up to the transfer of public health services to local government during 2011/12. The idea behind the LGDTC was, in theory, to protect local public health policies from the supposed undue influence of the tobacco industry following the transfer of public health – the thinking being that the objectives of each group are fundamentally contradictory to one another.
There has never been any proven case where such undue influence has been exerted either nationally or locally in the UK. Yet it is in ASH’s self-interest to perpetuate this myth for their own existence and funding – they derive £200,000 per annum from the Department of Health.
ASH worked in partnership with the leader of Newcastle City Council as the first adopter authority. It is therefore very much a Labour Party/ASH inspired development. The LGDTC has now been signed by around 100 local authorities – including around a dozen Conservative authorities such as Surrey, Kent, Cheshire East, Dorset and Worcestershire County Councils.
What is the practical relevance of such a gesture? Most significantly, it is preventing the industry from working with signatory councils (trading standards) on the issue of the illegal trade in tobacco products, which cost the Exchequer £2.1 billion in 2014 alone, imposed significant costs on retailers as a result of lost sales, and brought organised criminal gangs into local communities.
Several local authorities have rejected funding for sniffer dogs from tobacco manufacturers, which are used to locate illegal products. They have decided to fund this activity themselves and are redirecting funds from the public health budget in order to do so.
Enforcement activity is linked to this campaign. The support of the industry has helped enforcement partners to recover around £2 million in illicit product.
There have been examples where the trading standards officers, believing that LGDTC stops them from dealing with the industry, have refused to work with the industry on counterfeit tobacco – this includes refusing local, on-the-ground, intelligence.
Then there is the matter of litter. Due to LGDTC, councils and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign will no longer work with the tobacco industry on anti-litter measures or campaigns such as making bins smoker friendly.
The Local Government Association is one of the key supporters of the Declaration.
The good news is that discussions are currently underway with South Holland District Council and the industry on developing a programme of anti-litter measures including renewal of bin infrastructure so that they are adapted to smokers; needs and anti-litter behaviour change campaigns. This would obviously reduce costs to the local council taxpayer.
The Leader of South Holland is the Chairman-designate of the LGA, Cllr Gary Porter – which sends a very clear and strong message to those in local government who would play such political games to the detriment of local taxpayers.
Tobacco manufacturers have an interest in more people buying their product. Those of us concerned with public health have an interest in this not happening. But there are also shared interests – for instance in trying to tackle the illicit trade in tobacco products and the litter from smoking.
Many councils have either wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly entered into arrangements that are at odds with common sense.