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Monday
Sep172012

Forest, the Department of Health, and a Freedom of Information request

The tobacco control industry must be hugely disappointed.

Their latest attempt to smear Forest and discredit the Hands Off Our Packs campaign has already fallen flat.

On Friday the Department of Health released correspondence between the DH and Forest (among others). It was published online in response to a Freedom of Information request from an anonymous third party.

The correspondence includes two letters to Forest from the tobacco programme manager at the DH. In his letters he highlighted five specific incidents concerning the HOOP campaign.

He also requested detailed information about the collection of signatures. Sample questions: Did you engage any agencies or contractors to collect signatures? How many individuals have been engaged to collect signatures? Where have those collecting signatures been located?

In one letter he records (with a straight face, apparently) a complaint by leading anti-tobacco campaigner Professor John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, chair of the Royal College of Physicians tobacco advisory group, and a member of the ASH Board of Trustees.

In the other he describes an incident he himself witnessed at Waterloo station in London. Seizing on this, the Observer yesterday published a short report that you can read in one of two ways.

On one hand it is laughably biased with no attempt at balance. On the other, and to the certain chagrin of tobacco control campaigners (including, I suspect, the DH), it only merited an entry in the 'News In Brief' section on page 16.

As far as I know the report is not even online, which shows how highly the Observer rated the story.

Unfortunately one casualty of this indifference is Forest because on Friday the Observer invited me to respond to the DH's allegations but the published report is so brief that my response was omitted.

For the record this is part of what I wrote:

"The DH outlined five very specific incidents that we were disturbed to hear about and have treated seriously. These have been received in the context of almost a quarter of a million signatures, submitted by Forest, opposing plain packaging. The scale of the public response against standardised packaging of tobacco products has therefore been nothing short of overwhelming, and the DH should not lose sight of that."

To put this 'story' in perspective you need to know a few more things.

On August 16 (the week after we delivered 235,000 petition signatures to the DH) I received an email from a journalist at the Guardian (sister paper of the Observer). Like the tobacco programme manager at the DH he too wanted information about our "signature-gathering process".

The Guardian email included a request for answers to a number of questions including:

  • What techniques did you use to gather signatures - e-petitioning, door-to-door, street collecting etc etc??
  • Which company/agency, if any, did you use to help gather signatures?
  • What systems/safeguards did you put in place to ensure all 235,000 signatures were who they said they were/were not duplicates etc?

He concluded his email, "I have also put the same questions to the rival campaign run by Cancer Research UK, ASH, etc".

I replied as follows:

Happy to respond to your questions if, as you say, you have also asked the same questions of (and received answers from) the Plain Packs Protect campaign which is supported by ASH, Cancer Research, Smokefree South West etc.

I would also like to request that if you run a story you will publish most if not all of the following comment so that our campaign and the techniques we have used are put in their correct context.

I then gave him the following quote:

"Our campaign tactics have been inspired by the techniques employed for several years by the tobacco control industry. For the first time the public has been given an equal opportunity by both sides of the debate to register their opinion and the response is clear.

"When given a chance to express their views, a huge number of people, almost half a million in total, do not support plain packaging of tobacco products. This is far in excess of the number of people who support standard packs. However hard they will try, the anti-tobacco lobby cannot spin their way out of that."

The next day, without waiting for confirmation that he had received responses from the tobacco control lobby, I sent a further email. It included a detailed response to every one of his questions – including the steps we have taken to ensure the authenticity of the signatures on our petition – and concluded:

Having taken the measures outlined above we are confident that the risk of duplication (or falsification) is very small indeed.

If there is any hard evidence of wrongdoing, we would be extremely grateful if you could pass it on to us immediately. We would take a very dim view of it and would obviously act accordingly.

That was FOUR weeks ago. To date the Guardian has still to publish a story on the issue.

Why? I'll let you be the judge but I imagine it's because the paper has no evidence of wrongdoing and even a tobacco-phobic publication like the Guardian is reluctant to suggest otherwise.

The other reason, I suspect, is this: if and when Plain Packs Protect responded to the same series of questions, the Guardian will have discovered that our respective campaigns used very similar methods to gather signatures, which is hardly a story. The difference is, HOOP got 235,000, PPP got 220,000.

(The real story, which the mainstream media has completely overlooked, is the abuse of public money to influence/manipulate the outcome of a 'public' consultation but I'll come back to that another day.)

Anyway, someone, somewhere, decided to dig a little deeper into HOOP and on August 24 I received a third letter from the tobacco programme manager at the DH:

I am writing to you in connection with a request for information received by the Department of Health (DH) that is being considered under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI Act).

I am informing you that the request we have received relates (among other things) to correspondence between DH and Forest during the period 16 April to 10 August 2012 (inclusive), including any correspondence “in connection with the Hands Off Our Packs campaign”.

Well, Forest has nothing to hide so I was happy to write back:

Thank you for your letter of 24 August concerning a request for information received by the Department of Health under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I have no objection to the DH disclosing the correspondence specified in your letter.

In fact, I went further and suggested that, "for completeness ... I would suggest that you also disclose ... my email to you dated 16 July 2012".

This email did little more than acknowledge his earlier letters but it included the important point that "We take complaints such as this very seriously", plus the assurance that "I will respond to your letters in due course".

Which indeed I did.

The DH is now is possession of two further letters from me, one dated August 30, the second dated September 7. The first is a five-page letter which provides a detailed response to all queries. The second is a four-page letter in which I highlight several concerns that we have about the Plain Packs Protect campaign.

Neither letter was part of the package of correspondence released on Friday because they were sent outside the period stipulated in the FOI request.

Suffice to say there is lot more to be said on this subject.

Watch this space.

PS. The Observer refers to me by name but doesn't identify the tobacco programme manager by name, even when he is the person the report is referring to. Instead he is a "DoH official" or, bizarrely, he is referred to in the plural ("Department of Health officials").

I have always found it curious that key civil servants – some of whom are far more influential than the ministers they work for – are given a cloak of anonymity by the media. This has to change.

Update: I am told the report also appeared in the iPad edition of the Observer.

Update: In response to enquiries, I won't be posting the Observer report on this blog because it is biased, inaccurate and highly misleading. If the Observer can't be bothered to publish it on their own website I'm certainly not going to do their dirty work for them!!

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Reader Comments (4)

I just wonder who this third party’s request came from – the Observer, Guardian, (who both piss in the same pot) or perhaps ASH. It does show you that the DH has never been at all impartial in this, because they’re voicing concerns about the collection of signatures – which is more or less saying our agenda is all that matters, and there is no room for counter-balance. If they truly believed in democracy then they themselves would not have funded the quangos’ that supported the government’s line.
Have the media ever questioned openly how the government go about getting all their signatures?

Please keep us informed Simon about the reply you’re still waiting for from the Guardian journalist (perhaps journalist is too strong a word), although I wouldn’t hold my breath.

What a cheek – and disturbing too.

At least Forest can hold its head up high since its played by the rules at all times.

Monday, September 17, 2012 at 10:57 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

Looks and sounds like you did quite well Simon! You're more trusting than I would be though: I doubt the other side submitted the same sort of answers you did. If you check Dick Puddlecote's blog today at

http://dickpuddlecote.blogspot.com/2012/09/he-who-casts-first-stone-and-all-that.html

I think you'll find they're not always as forthcoming as one might wish.

- MJM

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 6:44 | Unregistered CommenterMichael J. McFadden

Black will, undoubtedly, claim them to be astroturfed and feed it through to the committee. The committee, being raving antis all, will accept it without question and send their 'findings' up to the Minister. As previous, the Minister will know no more or less than that and operate accordingly.

It'll take a strong man to throw it back with 'questions' and given that Hunt has recently given up smoking, we can't be optimistic. I live in hope though.

Just how the hell did they manage to get this stranglehold on Depts and policy?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 12:53 | Unregistered CommenterFrank J

Have you seen this Simon?

Andrew Black wrote to you on the 14th June, and Simon Chapman tweeted this on the 18th June. It would appear that Black was in communication with Chapman giving him information concerning the consultation on ‘Plain Packaging’.

I wonder if Andrew Black could clarify for us as to whether or not he had any such conversation with Simon Chapman about the DOH consultation on 'Plain Packaging' Maybe a FOI request is necessary.

I think we need answers.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 23:25 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

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