Smokefree South West to close in June
Friday, February 5, 2016 at 7:52
Simon Clark

This shouldn't come as a complete surprise but I was still a bit startled when I was told the news (in confidence) on Wednesday.

The BBC has this morning revealed that eleven councils in the south west are to stop funding the anti-smoking campaign group Smokefree South West which will close in June.

The story was reported on BBC Radio Bristol as their lead story and I 'discussed' it at 7.05 with a spokesman for Cancer Research UK who claimed it was a "disaster" for the region and predicted dire consequences.

Smokefree South West "declined to appear" which is ironic because one of the reasons I welcome their demise is because there are far too many tobacco control groups all sending out pretty much the same message.

The fact that Cancer Research could put up a spokesman rather proved my point. (ASH has also been commenting.)

CRUK is one of many anti-smoking organisations but at least they're not funded by the taxpayer. As long as we have organisations like CRUK, the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, why on earth do we need publicly funded groups like Smokefree South West, Tobacco Free Futures (formerly Smokefree North West) and FRESH (formally Smokefree North East)? Or ASH for that matter?

More recently Smokefree South West has been sharing an office with the regional branch of Public Health England, another taxpayer-funded body.

If I'm surprised it's because I can't believe it took these councils so long to draw the obvious conclusion. Do we really need another publicly-funded quit smoking organisation in our region?

Smokefree South West must have known something was afoot because – in a sure sign of desperation – they re-named themselves Public Health Action and started campaigning on drinking as well as smoking.

Talk about loss of focus!

Truth is, the alarm bells began ringing long before that. On February 8, 2014, for example, I wrote a post entitled 'Smokefree South West battles to retain local authority funding'.

It began:

Yesterday I travelled to Bristol to record an interview for BBC1's Sunday Politics West, to be broadcast tomorrow.

On Wednesday a producer rang to tell me that councils in Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset have been reviewing the financial support they give Smokefree South West.

One council has decided to stop funding the group, another has cut its funding, and a third is considering its position.

I described the recording of the programme and my subsequent comments now seem unusually prescient:

Fiona [Andrews, director of Smokefree South West] talked about the work Smokefree South West does while I tried to question why we need a regional anti-smoking group when central government spends millions of pounds on anti-smoking campaigns and we also have ASH and other tobacco control groups doing the same work.

I could, I suppose, have listed some of them – Cancer Research, British Heart Foundation, British Lung Foundation, British Medical Association ... the list is endless.

I could also have mentioned GASP, a Bristol-based smoking cessation company that began life as a pressure group but is now a successful commercial operation that doesn't need public money (as far as I know).

But time was limited. Instead I found myself saying, in a raised voice, "You're just duplicating their work!"

I finished that particular post by asking a series of questions:

What is the point of Smokefree South West? Or Tobacco Free Futures (formerly Smokefree North West)? Or Fresh (formerly Smokefree North East)?

What additional value do any of these groups offer that is not already covered by ASH, Cancer Research, the British Medical Association etc and central government which pumps millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into a variety of tobacco control campaigns?

Why should people have to pay for anti-smoking campaigns twice – once through income tax, and again through their council tax?

Worse, a lot of this money is being spent on campaigns that effectively lobby the Department of Health to introduce policies that it already supports or is considering.

The good news is that some councils are finally getting wise to the problem and are questioning this waste (or abuse) of public funds.

Hats off to the local councillors who have seen through the propaganda. Hopefully, more local authorities follow suit.

As I say, that was two years ago and it appears that the local authorities have finally done the right thing and pulled the plug.

I'm sorry for the people who work for Smokefree South West (Fiona Andrews and her deputy Kate Knight always struck me as decent people) but I can't bemoan the loss of a group whose entire raison d'être was designed to denormalise smoking and, in turn, smokers.

Lest we forget it was Smokefree South West who persuaded the owners of two privately-run squares in Bristol to ban smoking on their property. OK, it was a "voluntary" ban but that term is meaningless. It also gave rise to suggestions of similar bans in other cities.

It was also Smokefree South West that helped set up Plain Packs Protect, the pro plain packaging campaign. Half a million pounds of public money went into that – and it took an FOI for the truth to come out.

So let's not be squeamish. This is a very good day. Let's hope several more tobacco control campaigners are sitting rather less comfortably.

Instead of relying on the taxpayer to keep them afloat they might heed what I wrote two years ago:

If Smokefree South West is running short of money I suggest they approach the pharmaceutical industry for support.

If they offer any value to the tobacco control industry I'm sure Big Pharma will be happy to plug the funding gap.

Anyway, as well as BBC Bristol I'm also on BBC Cornwall and BBC Somerset.

As you can see, this is a big story in the South West.

PS. Big H/T to Chris Snowdon and Dick Puddlecote who have also been on Smokefree South West's case for several years. Chris is now synonymous with the term sock puppet – having virtually invented it – and Smokefree South West is a classic example.

Update: We're expecting a report on the BBC News website. I'll add a link when it appears. In the meantime here's the quote I gave the BBC:

"Taxpayers already pay for NHS smoking cessation services and national anti-smoking campaigns.

"When budgets are so tight, and other services are being cut, it's difficult to justify the use of public money to support yet another tobacco control group.

"The health risks of smoking are very well known and widely publicised by other bodies including Public Health England which has a regional office in Bristol.

"In terms of public health, the impact of Smokefree South West closing will be negligible, I'm sure."

Update: Click here to listen to the interview on BBC Radio Bristol this morning.

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