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« The Guardian and the story that never was | Main | Plain packaging: Freedom of Information requests reveal bigger picture »

Smear test: how the plain packaging consultation turned ugly

You can tell when a political campaign is in trouble.

Campaigners resort to desperate measures, one of which is to smear the opposition with unfounded innuendo.

But first, let's turn back the clock to April when the Government launched its long-awaited consultation on standardised packaging of tobacco.

As I wrote here, campaigners for plain packaging were so confident of 'winning' the public battle that I was even teased by Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, about the number of people who were supporting Forest's Hands Off Our Packs campaign.

Deborah was entitled to feel confident. With the public sector and other taxpayer-funded bodies regularly called into action to lobby government (yes, the infamous government lobbying government tactic), 'public' consultations on tobacco control have been a bit one-sided of late.

Remember the consultation on the future of tobacco control in 2008? There were 96,000 responses, 76,000 of them generated by groups funded with public money. Why would the plain pack consultation be any different?

Well, we've learned some valuable lessons in recent years and the body that has taught us more than most is the tobacco control industry. Consequently, from the moment it was launched in February, the Hands Off Our Packs campaign has done rather well.

I'm not sure when anti-tobacco campaigners first realised they had a genuine fight on their hands but in June, a few weeks before the consultation was due to close (it was later extended by four weeks), we received the first of several letters/emails from the Department of Health highlighting a number of complaints about our campaign.

The first letter, dated June 14, concerned an incident witnessed by the Department's very own tobacco programme manager.

The second letter, dated June 20, outlined a complaint that was sent to the DH not by a member of the public but by John Britton who is described in the letter as "Professor of Epidemiology and Head of the Department for Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Nottingham, and the Chair of the Royal College of Physicians' Tobacco Group". No mention, though, that Prof Britton is also a member of the ASH Board of Trustees.

Finally, in mid July, our attention was drawn to a further three complaints that the DH had received via email. In total, then, five complaints, at least two of them by leading advocates of tobacco control.

I will return to those other complaints later but it's the incident recorded in the first letter (subsequently released under FOI) that has led to charges of petition "rigging" and "cheating".

And the source of those accusations? Why, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, administered by ASH and chaired by our old friend Stephen Williams MP who helped launch the Plain Packs Protect campaign.

The APPG disseminates 'information' via a quarterly bulletin that is distributed, I believe, to every MP. The latest issue features a number of items about plain packaging with headlines such as 'Plain packs: not plain, just honest' and 'How the tobacco industry uses packaging to hook new smokers'.

But the headline that really caught our eye was the one that screams, 'FOI request shows industry campaigners rigging plain packs petition'.


According to the short and very one-sided report:

Tobacco industry campaigners running a petition against plain packaging cheated to boost their results, as revealed in documents published after a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Health.

On the 14th June 2012, the Tobacco Programme Manager at the Department of Health wrote to the Director of the industry front group Forest to tell him that he had personally observed a campaigner falsifying signatures to the anti-plain packs petition in the street.

Rather foolishly, the campaigner filled out a page of signatures in his own writing while standing close to the DH office in Wellington House at Waterloo.

"Cheating", "rigging"? These are serious allegations. Did ASH or Stephen Williams seek our response before publishing? Of course not.

Had they bothered to ask I would have shown them my letter to the DH (dated August 30) but I guess that would have spoiled their story with its tabloid-esque headline implying widespread and systematic abuse. (Perhaps Lord Leveson would like to include APPG bulletins in his media enquiry?!)

For the record, here is Forest's response to the incident the APPG bulletin refers to. It's part of my five-page letter to the DH that has also been released by the DH under FOI but, curiously, has not been published online, unlike the DH's letters to Forest:

Tribe Marketing Limited, the agency that was engaged to assist in the canvassing of opinion and recording of opposition to standardised packaging, has now investigated this matter. An individual who was working at Waterloo Station on that day has confessed to forging two signatures on his forms. He told Tribe that he was sitting on a bench on his break and called his girlfriend and best friend to ask if they would sign the petition. They agreed and he filled it out on their behalf. As he was doing so he states that a man approached, “snatched” the forms from him, and asked what he was doing. The individual says he explained the HOOP campaign. He states that he knows he was stupid and that he had been told by his team leader not to forge signatures.

Unfortunately it is not possible to extract from the bundles of signed HOOP forms those forms that were submitted from the individual at Waterloo Station that day because we did not “code” the forms and they are therefore indistinguishable. Perhaps the best option in respect of the two individuals is to discount their signatures from the total number submitted to the Department of Health. Whilst the signature collector claims they were happy for their opinion to be submitted, the signatures on the forms are not theirs and we are happy for them to be discounted.

Now, I cannot emphasise enough how much we condemn this inappropriate behaviour. But let's get this one incident in perspective. The tobacco programme manager at the Department of Health says he witnessed one person writing multiple signatures on a single petition sheet. Each sheet on a HOOP petition pad had space for five signatures.

The individual concerned says he added two signatures. Two or five, it doesn't matter. It was wrong. But let's accept the word of the tobacco programme manager at the Department of Health and agree that it was five. Does that really justify a headline that reads 'FOI request shows industry campaigners rigging plain packs petition' or the implication that the Hands Off Our Packs campaign "cheated" to get 235,000 signatures?

The Department of Health doesn't seem to think so because last month I got another, rather more conciliatory, letter from the tobacco programme manager who thanked me for my response to his "earlier questions".

There were no further questions and no mention of "cheating" or "rigging" so why do ASH and Stephen Williams think it's acceptable to use such language in a parliamentary publication funded, no doubt, by taxpayers' money?

Desperate people do desperate things but the attempt by the APPG on Smoking and Health to smear Forest and the Hands Off Our Packs campaign on the back of one incident witnessed by one person is pretty low, even by tobacco control standards.

Tomorrow: The Guardian and the story that never was.

Update: Nannying Tyrants has more on the plain pack consultation. See Blackout.

Update: Dick Puddlecote has added his tuppence worth here.

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Reader Comments (4)

I don't recall ever getting an email asking me to countersign anything - unlike the tobacco control industry which actively encouraged it amongst paid members of staff in various tobacco control industry front groups that pose as "charities."

But what does it matter when we all know the alleged selective consultation was rigged from the start and the APPG's job was simply to make up enough lies to justify its imposition against public opinion.

I was chatting to a smoker over a smoke in the cold the other night and I was astounded that she knew nothing of plain packaging nor anything about the consultation.

The DH and it's own political lobby groups didn't really want the wider public to know.

If they were honest, they'd have done the job properly but they're not. They just want the result they pay these groups to get with our money.

Shame on them. Ah well, the Tories don't want to win another election obviously because they wouldn't be giving votes to UKIP if they did and so much of UKIP's staggering new membership has come direct from pissed of smokers who are fed up of Govt not listening and enforcing such political ideology upon them when they were voted in on the promise of giving us our lost freedoms back and not on taking yet more away.

As for Stephen Williams, he's a LibDem - an extremist fringe party member who won't be back next time along with some 57 of his colleagues who are all likely to lose their deposit if elections since 2010 are anything to go by.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 16:12 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

There we see it - the verbal manipulation:
" 'FOI request shows industry campaigners rigging plain packs petition'."
The evidence?
"The DoH chap saw a researcher 'forge' multiple signatures"
Not actually a lie, since the number 2 is indeed a multiple of the number 1.
But the question also arises as to whether 'signing' a form for someone is 'forgery', if the person whose name has been added to the petition does not object the the researcher signing for him/her. (Not, of course, that such a procedure is to be recommended).
In any case, does anyone EVER check signatures on petitions? The critical thing is names and addresses. If necessary, via names and addresses, checks could be made that a person actually agreed to add his/her name to the petition. The signature, as such, is irrelevant. What might be interesting is to trace the two girls involved and ask them if they did indeed get a phone call and did indeed agree to their names being added. Further, many people added their names to the petition on-line. No physical signature is require. How do we know that ASH ET AL are not using the multiplicity of computers available to them the add names of family members in that way, without permission?
If the responsible person in the DoH wants to check that people actually agreed to sign the petition, he can do, but he should also check an equal number of people who signed ASH's petition. Since the DoH person is manifestly biased, checking should be done by an independent organisation such as the Electoral Society.
'Industry campaigners'? So ANYONE who campaigns against persecution of smokers is campaigning directly on behalf of the tobacco industry? More verbal manipulation!

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 21:48 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

"How do we know that ASH ET AL are not using the multiplicity of computers available to them"

Junican: We already know that they have done.

The APPG seems not to have mentioned that to MPs though. Very strange. ;)

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 22:32 | Unregistered CommenterDick Puddlecote

@ DP.

I remember reading your post now. It clearly implies that they should use their computers to deliberately duplicate signatures on various petitions.
An interesting FOI request, in view of Arnott's email, would be to ask the DoH to state how many duplicate signatures it had found on the various email petitions from ASH, CRUK, etc. And, in view of Arnott's email, what checks, by telephone or otherwise, had been made to ensure that the signatures on those petitions were genuine.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 23:44 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

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