Two years ago the Labour Government conducted a public consultation on the future of tobacco control. Proposals to be discussed included a tobacco display ban and a ban on cigarette vending machines.
When the results of the consultation were announced in December 2008 the Department of Health boasted that, "Over 96,000 responses were received … the largest ever response to a consultation of this kind. Responses overwhelmingly supported removing tobacco displays in shops, and tough action to restrict access to vending machines."
But was there really huge public support for further tobacco controls, as the DH suggested? Of the 96,515 responses the overwhelming majority were pre-written postcards or e-mail campaigns. A total of 49,507 were generated by Smokefree Northwest, 8,128 by Smokefree North East, and a further 10,757 from something called D-MYST.
A simple investigation revealed that all three are publicly-funded. Smokefree Northwest is led by the DH’s regional tobacco policy manager in Manchester; Smoke Free North East is funded by the region's primary care trusts and is linked to an alliance of health, public sector and community organisations; and D-MYST is SmokeFree Liverpool’s youth organisation.
In short, this wasn’t a public consultation at all. It was a public sector consultation.
Factor in the £191,000 that the DH gave the anti-smoking charity ASH for its ‘Beyond Smoking Kills’ report (which also, surprise, surprise, found a “high level of public support” for a range of tobacco control measures) and you don't have to be a genius to realise that the result of the “public consultation” was effectively manipulated to favour the Labour Government’s tobacco control policy.
Today a report commissioned by the smokers’ lobby group Forest reveals that the UK tobacco control industry receives the vast majority of its funding from the public purse, and much of this money is then used to influence government to spend even more public money on tobacco control measures.
According to our research a range of local and regional organisations (Smokefree partnerships) are funded entirely with public money through local government grants or NHS/Primary Care Trust funding; some university departments devoted entirely to tobacco control receive funding from central government (Department of Health) and the NHS/primary care trusts; and several charities dedicated to tobacco control lobbying of central government are funded almost entirely by central government!
Two examples: commencing June 2008 the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies will receive £3,694,498 over five years. It was also awarded a £1.2 million grant to develop and pilot several projects to implement smoking cessation services. Smoke Free North West meanwhile secured almost £1.9 million from the PCTs in 2008 to “complement core national funding”.
The Forest report also highlights the public money given to anti-smoking “charities” such as ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and No Smoking Day.
ASH UK, for example, received a direct grant of £142,000 from the Department of Health in 2009 (£191,000 in 2008 and £210,400 in 2007) plus £110,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government in 2007. In 2008-09 ASH Scotland received £921,837 from the Scottish Government followed, in December 2009, by a £500,000 grant from the Big Lottery to fund a major three-year research project into smoke-free homes in Scotland. ASH Wales meanwhile received £115,800 from the Welsh Assembly Government in 2008-09 and £113,000 in 2007-08.
(If you ever wondered about the price of devolution, consider this: ASH Scotland employs no fewer than 27 people, three times that of its sister organisation in London. What on earth do they do all day?)
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has pledged to stop local authorities and quangos employing external consultants to assist with their lobbying activities. If the Coalition Government is consistent it must review its tobacco control strategy and investigate what these publicly-funded groups do that could not be done by the Department of Health within its existing budget.
Alarmingly, the DH does not appear to know how much public money is spent overall on the Smokefree network of tobacco control groups that have developed over the last ten years. When the general public and other government departments are being asked to tighten their belts, it is unacceptable for public money to be frittered away like this.
Labour turned the use of public funds into a dark art. If nothing else, the Coalition Government must renounce the practise whereby quangos and pressure groups are allowed to use public money to lobby government in support of government policy. In the name of democracy (and prudent public expenditure) ministers must restore a level playing field for the nation’s consumers.