Stoptober: the mystery of the missing evaluation
Sunday, October 1, 2017 at 12:28
Simon Clark

"Stoptober is back ... and it's bigger than ever."

The question is, why?

On November 3, shortly after the 2016 campaign finished, I wrote:

Last year, without prompting or prevarication, Public Health England reported that over 215,000 smokers had signed up to Stoptober 2015. The announcement was made on October 30, 2015, and was posted on the UK government website.

What it failed to mention was that the number was 15 per cent fewer than 2014 or that PHE, a quango funded by taxpayers' money, paid four comedians including Al Murray and Bill Bailey a total of £195,000 to promote the campaign.

The latter wasn't revealed until February 2016 when the Mail on Sunday blew the whistle. Meanwhile we await comparable figures for Stoptober 2016.

When I wrote that post I was curious to know how many smokers had signed up to Stoptober 2016.

In the absence of any reports I wrote to PHE asking for confirmation. My email was treated as a freedom of information request and on November 18, 2016, I received this response:

The strategy for Stoptober 2016 was to focus on overall participation rather than sign ups to PHE tools. As such, the evaluation will focus on quits at a population level.

In other words – and possibly to disguise a further fall in the number of smokers signing up – PHE had changed the goalposts. Nevertheless:

It is expected that all strands of the evaluation will be finalised early February.

Well, February came and went and still there was no sign of a report. Eventually, on August 25, four weeks before the launch of Stoptober 2017, I sent a further FOI request for a "full evaluation of the outcome of Stoptober 2016".

On September 22, the day after Stoptober 2017 was launched, PHE replied:

We are releasing an evaluation document of Stoptober 2016 during Stoptober 2017; this will be available on the PHE website ... The original publication date was delayed.

Delayed? You're telling me! Delayed by eight months. And why release an evaluation document of Stoptober 2016 during Stoptober 2017? Is this an attempt to hide bad news?

Equally interesting is the fact that my FOI request also uncovered the information that "the final media spend for Stoptober 2016 was £390,000" while "the current projected media spend for Stoptober 2017 is £1.08 million".

Think about that for a minute. Public Health England committed over one million pounds of your money to Stoptober 2017 (an increase of 150 per cent) when it had yet to publish an evaluation of the outcome of Stoptober 2016.

It's like an army going into battle without evaluating the outcome of the previous conflict. Why would PHE do that? Is it simple incompetence or something else?

Meanwhile, why the difference between the projected and actual media costs for Stoptober 2016? According to PHE in November 2016, "The total media spend for Stoptober 2016 is approximately £545,000." Now, says PHE nine months later, "The final media spend for Stoptober 2016 was £390,000."

I'm glad that the actual figure is less than the projected figure but it would be interesting to know why there is such a disparity.

According to a video released today, "Thousands of people are getting ready to quit smoking this Stoptober." In the same video Coronation Street actress Kym Marsh urges smokers to "Join over one million people who have taken part in Stoptober."

Truth is, a significant sum of public money is being spent on a campaign that doesn't appear to know its arse from its elbow. Nor is there evidence that Stoptober does what it's intended to do – get smokers to quit.

Taking part in or "getting reading to quit" are quite different from giving up smoking for good. Lazily however media and politicians swallow all the propaganda (the videos, the tweets, the celebrity endorsements) while more and more money is flushed down the toilet in the name of 'smoking cessation'.

Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to get the vaping community to promote Stoptober 2017:

The annual Stoptober campaign in England is embracing e-cigarettes for the first time - in a sign vaping is being seen as the key to getting people to quit.

See Quit smoking campaign Stoptober backs e-cigs for the first time (BBC News).

Sadly the chances of reading an evaluation of Stoptober 2017 (including the number of smokers who swap combustibles for e-cigarettes) before Stoptober 2018 must be pretty small. After all, that's not how government or the public sector work.

Almost every campaign or policy is based on a wing, a prayer – and your dosh.

See also: Stoptober is proof that comedy isn't the new rock 'n' roll (October 2015), Stoptober and the law of diminishing returns (September 2016), Questions for Public Health England concerning Stoptober 2016 (November 2016).

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