Plain Packaging? No, Prime Minister!

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Diary of a Political Campaign

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Friday
Jan092015

Shedding light on CRUK's relationship with the Press Association

As I reported on Wednesday, the British Heart Foundation's new report advocating the use of plain packaging tanked, media wise.

Worse, it was openly mocked by Politics.co.uk whose editor Ian Dunt wrote, New plain packs 'evidence' is worthy of a laugh and little else.

In a desperate bid to retrieve the situation Cancer Research UK pitched in and issued its own press release:

The graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging are twice as likely to catch the eye of smokers when printed on non-branded packaging, a UK charity’s report claims.

See Health warnings clearer on plain cigarette packs (CRUK).

Did that get any publicity? Er, nope.

Even the nation's notoriously one-eyed health correspondents can recognise a dud, especially when it has to be promoted on consecutive days by two separate organisations in the hope it might drum up some coverage.

More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that CRUK's press release was issued on Wednesday "in collaboration with the Press Association" even though the PA had already issued a report based on the BHF's original press release.

I know this because one of the two newspaper reports that did appear was credited to Josie Clarke, the PA's consumer affairs correspondent. See Tobacco branding warning from BHF (Herald).

The second report, in the Glasgow Evening Times, was credited to political editor Stewart Paterson but it was clearly based on the PA/Herald report. (See New call for plain cigs packets.)

Neither report included a comment from Forest although we sent our response to both Josie Clarke and the PA news desk at 13:32 on Tuesday, minutes after we received a copy of the BHF press release which was embargoed until 00:01hrs on Wednesday.

Assuming Josie saw it she either ignored it or the Herald/Times edited out our comments. All I know is, the reports published in the Herald and Evening Times were both extremely one-sided with no attempt at balance.

Anyway, I'm more interested in CRUK's relationship with Britain's number one news agency.

Dick Puddlecote was the first to spot the phrase "in collaboration with the Press Association" on a CRUK press release.

I'm not aware of any other organisation that uses it on their press releases and it raises a number of questions.

One, was the content of the press release written by a PA employee? Two, was it approved by the PA? Three, does the PA endorse the (one-sided) content?

I can't shed any light on that but I can reveal that the Press Association owns a company called Sticky Content that I'm told produces CRUK’s press releases.

According to the company's website:

Sticky Content helps the world's biggest brands to plan, create and deliver content that gets results. We are content strategists and consultants, digital copywriters and trained journalists. We are clever with content.

Apparently the Press Association acquired the company in October 2013. Clients listed on the website include Thomson, John Lewis, O2 and RBS.

Under 'Health and pharmaceutical' it lists Novartis and Bupa, among others.

Under 'Government and not for profit' it lists RNIB, Just Giving, British Red Cross and Action for Children.

I can't find any mention of Cancer Research yet there it is at the top of CRUK's press release, "In collaboration with the Press Association". (Not Sticky Content, note, but "the Press Association".)

What does this say about the PA and its commitment to impartial, balanced journalism?

I'll leave you to judge.

PS. In April 2013, before the PA's acquisition of Sticky Content, I wrote this post, Memo to the Press Association.

By and large Forest enjoys an OK relationship with the PA. News editors are invariably helpful and friendly.

I must ask them, though, how much Sticky Content would charge to write our press releases, whether we could include the phrase "in collaboration with the Press Association" on them, and whether there are any other benefits.

Thursday
Jan082015

We've got to stick to our guns says satirist

My former colleague Neil Rafferty was on BBC Radio Scotland this morning discussing the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

A former Sunday Times journalist, Neil was spokesman for Forest in Scotland before The Daily Mash (the satirical website he founded with fellow journalist Paul Stokes) became a full-time occupation.

Neil now lives in France so he was in a good position to comment on events in Paris.

Describing what happened as "sickening", he talked of a "deep sense of despair" and said he felt a "strong sense of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and everybody who believes in freedom of expression".

I particularly liked his very honest assessment that the satirists at Charlie Hebdo are "braver than I am".

"Satire," he added, "is important, it's necessary, it's a hugely positive thing in society. We've just got to stick to our guns."

You can listen to the interview here. It begins at 01:35:40.

Wednesday
Jan072015

BHF report bombs

News editors are getting wise, it seems, to the rubbish spewed out by plain packaging campaigners.

I'm not sure I should even dignify the British Heart Foundation's latest report but here goes:

Yesterday, one o'clock, we were sent a press release that began:

Smokers are almost twice as likely to take notice of health warnings on tobacco products when their packaging is stripped of advertising, according to a new report by the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

The BHF’s Standardised Packaging for Tobacco Products report reviewed data from almost 3,000 smokers and ex-smokers to test how effective standardised packaging is as a tobacco control strategy.

The research showed that after tobacco packets were stripped of branding in Australia in December 2012, the number of people taking notice of the warning labels almost doubled.

Naturally we jumped into action and responded with a press release of our own:

Campaigners have dismissed claims by the British Heart Foundation that health warnings have a bigger impact on smokers when tobacco products are stripped of branding.

Simon Clark, director of the smokers' group Forest which runs the Hands Off Our Packs campaign, said:

"There's no evidence plain packaging has had any impact on smoking rates since it was introduced in Australia. The only people who have benefited are counterfeiters and illicit traders.

"Tobacco control campaigners said graphic health warnings would deter people from smoking but they've had minimal effect.

"The fact that they now want to introduce plain packaging is an indictment of existing health warnings and there's nothing to suggest standardised packaging will be any more successful.

"Introducing plain packaging in the UK where illicit trade is already a huge problem would be a big risk with no beneficial effect."

Someone then pointed out something I had forgotten, so we added a further comment:

"Next year, under the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, health warnings will increase substantially in size. Surely government should assess the impact of that policy before proceeding with more regulations?"

We had one media enquiry - from Sky Radio - and that was it.

This morning I can find only two references to the report, one in the Glasgow Herald, the other in its stablemate the Glasgow Evening Times. Media-wise the BHF report has bombed almost without trace.

You can be sure though that copies will be winging their way to ministers and other members of parliament. When they receive it they I hope they will reflect on what I trust is screaming obvious.

One, "twice as likely to take notice of health warnings" is meaningless without knowing how much notice smokers take of health warnings on branded packets.

My guess is the figure is very small so "twice as likely" is still very small. (As someone once said, 2 x 0 = 0.)

Two, there is still no evidence plain packaging works. "Taking notice" of a warning label is quite different to actually quitting (or being deterred from taking up smoking in the first place).

The fact is, if there was any evidence standardised packaging has had an impact on smoking rates in Australia tobacco control campaigners would be shouting it from the rooftops.

Instead they resort to nonsense like this. Even the BBC isn't taken in.

PS. Politics.co.uk has got it spot on here:

New plain packs 'evidence' is worthy of a laugh and little else

Update: Convenience Store has a short piece, including our response, here.

Monday
Jan052015

Unfollow!

It's exactly a year since I joined Twitter.

I know this because Twitter told me.

I don't have many followers – a few hundred – and I follow a third of that number.

I don't understand why anyone would follow hundreds or even thousands of people. You'd have to spend all day on Twitter to read every tweet.

I assume some people are so desperate for followers they follow indiscriminately in the hope the people they follow will follow them.

From time to time I cull some of the people I follow. I do it because if I didn't they would drive me nuts.

One is a high profile Conservative politician who is adored by many on the right but I think he's the most crashing bore, on Twitter at least. In person he's quite pleasant but when he tweets I often want to scream "Shut up!" or "Get a life you pompous prat!".

For example, whenever the nation is gripped by a big event on television (the final of the World Cup or Strictly Come Dancing), our man will be on Twitter quoting Shakespeare or Churchill, oblivious to the real world.

A prospective parliamentary candidate was doing my head in because there wasn't an airport in the world he didn't want us to know he was tweeting from. (I post a few vanity tweets myself but not all the time!!)

A senior journalist at a leading national newspaper would begin each day with a tweet describing how visible a major London landmark was from his office. I read each tweet as a coded message to his employers: "Look at me! I'm in the office at 6.00am!" He's no longer at that newspaper and I'm not surprised.

I sometimes tweet about football but not obsessively. I'm 55 for heaven's sake. One person – a broadcaster the same age as me – tweets so often about the love of his life (Arsenal) I'm concerned about his mental health. (No, I'm not talking about Piers Morgan.)

These occasional culls genuinely improve my life. Having certain people on my timeline is stressful not because they're bad or unpleasant people. It's the sheer volume of inane and often self-regarding rubbish I can't handle.

Which brings me to Gyles Brandreth.

I've interviewed the former MP for Chester twice. He's smart, funny and extremely engaging.

His diaries (Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries and Something Sensational to Read in the Train) are wonderful. So is Brief Encounters: Meetings with Remarkable People, a compilation of often very moving interviews.

Two or three years ago I even took my family to see his one man show.

On Twitter though Gyles is maddening. Morning noon and night he appears to tweet everything that comes into his head. It's like a nervous tic and it's relentless.

Sorry, Gyles, I'm a huge fan but last week I could bear it no longer.

Unfollow!

PS. If you're going to tweet about yourself from a great location do it with chutzpah and a sense of humour.

Take these tweets from Alex Deane (who spoke at Forest's Freedom Dinner last year). They barely hint at the torrent he posted last week but their appearance on my timeline genuinely brightened my days.

I hope you enjoyed your holiday, Alex, because I did!

Sunday
Jan042015

Keeping Britain tidy

According to the Independent on Sunday:

MPs want tobacco companies, takeaway restaurants and chewing-gum manufacturers to spend hundreds of millions of pounds cleaning up the mess their products create ...

Keep Britain Tidy has estimated that indirect costs, such as the impact on health, property values, and encouraging crime, cost the economy an additional £3bn.

See Pick up some of the £1bn litter bill, MPs to tell businesses.

I'm not sure where KBT got their figures from (the back of a cigarette packet, perhaps) but it prompted a couple of acerbic tweets from Imperial Tobacco's Adam Cleave:

My company, incl me, has held numerous talks with KBT. Incoherent plans always aimed at squeezing pointless cash out of business.

Talks stretch back years. No desire to 'clean' in my view; more to ensure continued funding.

It reminded me that in February 2010 I too had a meeting with Keep Britain Tidy to discuss some form of collaboration because litter is an issue I think Forest should address.

There are a number of reasons why. Primarily, tobacco-related litter gives smokers a bad image and anything we can do to improve that image has to be a good thing.

That said, while smokers must take ultimate responsibility for disposing of tobacco-related litter, government has some responsibility too. It was the smoking ban, after all, that forced more people to smoke outside.

At the same time local councils have increasingly refused to install or give planning permission for cigarette bins for fear it will 'normalise' smoking.

Now, despite smokers paying a whopping £12bn a year in tobacco taxation, MPs want to impose a further tobacco levy to pay for the cost of cleaning up!

But back to that meeting with Keep Britain Tidy. I can't remember who initiated it but it followed an email to Forest from KBT asking us to help promote an anti-cigarette litter video.

I posted the video on Taking Liberties (Message to smokers from Keep Britain Tidy) and invited comments from readers.

I then wrote to KBT as follows:

Thanks for your email which I have posted on my blog. You may be interested to read the comments. I wouldn't say they are necessarily representative of the majority of smokers but they do represent the frustration many smokers feel at the barrage of anti-smoking propaganda that is pumped out by government and other agencies on an almost daily basis. Many smokers are simply fed up with the way they are constantly targeted and made to feel like social pariahs for doing no more than consuming a legal product.

On behalf of Forest I should add that we are very keen to improve the image of smokers and I would welcome the opportunity to get involved in a campaign that encourages smokers to dispose of their litter responsibly. (We have for many years distributed pocket ashtrays at party conferences and various social events.) In fact, I would be very interested in working with Keep Britain Tidy on this issue but I don't think this particular video is helpful.

It is so over the top and unrealistic that it completely negates the message it is trying to send. The shot of the child picking up a giant cigarette to her mother's obvious shock and alarm is especially gratuitous. I could almost imagine Forest making a similar video as a spoof to show how extreme the anti-smoking lobby has become.

The problem we have with many cigarette litter campaigns is that, rather than working with smokers to encourage smokers to act responsibly they try to make smokers feel bad about themselves and their habit and this is often backed up with the threat of fines and other penalties.

I think a great many smokers would like to behave responsibly but where are the cigarette bins? I feel that Keep Britain Tidy should do a lot more to persuade local authorities to install (or allow the installation of) cigarette bins on walls and lampposts, for example. Unfortunately we live in an age where the government wants to denormalise smoking and I believe there is a fear that cigarette bins "normalise" the habit.

We can't have it both ways. Over ten million people smoke in the UK, a figure that is not going to change drastically for many years. We can encourage smokers to dispose of their litter responsibly but if we insist on turning smokers into social pariahs - without giving them the means to dispose of their litter - it will breed a great deal of resentment (as you see from the comments on the blog) that will actually be counter-productive.

To repeat, Forest would be happy to discuss a cigarette litter campaign with Keep Britain Tidy just as long as it doesn't become an anti-smoker campaign.

It's almost five years since we met Keep Britain Tidy so I don't think I'm revealing any state secrets if I share some of the points that were made by both sides:

KBT said cigarette litter is one of the most problematic items to remove from the streets. Along with fast food and chewing gum it's in the top three most noticed items of litter.

SC asked whether there had been an increase in cigarette litter since the smoking ban. According KBT, around eight per cent.

SC said in most areas local authorities had not increased the number of outdoor cigarette bins.
KBT agreed that local authorities had not given the ban enough thought (eg where would all the cigarette litter go that would once have been in pub ashtrays?).

KBT said research showed people don't like to have litter on their person, especially cigarette butts which are perceived, even by smokers, to have an unpleasant odour. They prefer to dispose of their cigarettes in a bin rather than a pocket ashtray.

SC said previous meetings with KBT (when it was known as ENCAMS) were unproductive because there was a definite anti-smoking agenda.

KBT said they were not anti-smoking; campaigns were designed to educate people about littering, not smoking itself. They had interviewed smokers and non-smokers and had come to the conclusion it was important to target smokers, which meant they mustn't be deliberately judgemental about the act of smoking itself.

KBT said most smokers don't see cigarette butts as litter. Their main difficulty therefore was how to educate people that it does count as litter.

SC asked what KBT thought of the proposal to ban smoking in and around doorways? KBT said they didn't agree with it because smokers would simply move further away from where bins may be located and drop litter elsewhere.

KBT reported that according to research by Manchester University there is a definite correlation between public perception of a product and the amount of litter it generates. The top two littered brands, McDonalds and Greggs, have both begun initiatives with their own staff to pick up litter in their immediate surroundings with a view to adding value to the product.

SC said Forest was interested in running a 'responsible smoking' campaign but it needed to be handled very carefully in order not to alienate the target audience. The tone must be neither judgemental nor anti-smoking. Asked whether KBT would consider a joint campaign KBT said yes, possibly, but it was dependent on finance.

SC and KBT agreed to keep in contact and look into possible future collaboration.

Although the meeting was very amicable, we didn't keep in contact. In fact I have since been told that taxpayer-funded Keep Britain Tidy now has a policy of non-cooperation with the tobacco industry.

Whether Forest is included in this policy I don't know. I suspect they wouldn't work with us anyway because we can't bring any money to the table and as Adam Cleave has noted funding seems to be their princpal concern.

Meanwhile MPs want tobacco companies (among others) "to spend hundreds of millions of pounds cleaning up the mess their products create" and have invited them to face the House of Commons' Communities and Local Government Committee this week.

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday
Jan032015

Forest response to Scottish Government consultation on ecigs and tobacco control

Further to yesterday's post …

Forest's response to the Scottish Government consultation on 'Electronic Cigarettes and Strengthening Tobacco Control' (which closed yesterday) is now available online.

You'll find the press release on the Forest website. Scroll down or click here for the full response.

Meanwhile I'm still shaking my head at the information that at least one group of vaping advocates (whose board consists of several ex-smokers) "cannot respond on smoking matters" because they can only answer questions "which relate to our areas of competence" (smoking not being one of them, obviously).

The New Nicotine Alliance has therefore chosen (cravenly, in my opinion) not to comment on proposals to ban smoking in private vehicles and NHS grounds.

Coming soon: Scottish Government bans vaping in private vehicles and NHS grounds ... You read it here first.

Friday
Jan022015

Run with the hare, hunt with the hounds - good luck with that

Today is the closing date for the Scottish Government's consultation on e-cigs and further tobacco control.

Proposals include a ban on vaping in enclosed public places and the prohibition of advertisements for electronic cigarettes.

There are also proposals to ban smoking in cars carrying children, in outdoor children's areas, and on all NHS grounds.

I submitted Forest's response this morning and here's a taste. On advertising and the use of e-cigarettes in enclosed public places we wrote:

There is no evidence e-cigarettes are harmful. There is also very little evidence that non-smokers, including children, are using e-cigarettes as a gateway to tobacco. Overwhelmingly the vast majority of vapers are existing or ex-smokers, many of whom are using the products as a means to quitting smoking.

Excessive regulation on advertising will inevitably compromise the ability of businesses to market and sell a product that could have a significant impact on public health if it helps smokers switch from combustible products to electronic cigarettes. This in turn will have an impact on those consumers who wish to quit smoking and want to use a product that mimics the act of smoking without burning tobacco ...

The threat of a comprehensive ban on the use of e-cigarettes in enclosed public places is as bad if not worse than the smoking ban. There is no evidence that bystanders are at any risk from exposure to the vapour exhaled by consumers …

For smokers who have taken the decision to cut down or quit smoking and have found e-cigarettes to be a useful smoking cessation aid, legislation to ban vaping indoors would be the final straw. It would confirm that the Scottish Government has little interest in public health or evidence based policies but is merely interested in controlling people’s behaviour to the nth degree …

Describing legislation to ban smoking in cars with children as a "gross over-reaction to a very small problem", we wrote:

In practice very few adults still light up in cars carrying children. The vast majority have changed their behaviour voluntarily without government intervention and should be applauded, not demonised with unnecessary legislation that even its supporters accept will be difficult to enforce.

Banning smoking in a private vehicle represents a serious invasion of a citizen’s private space. What next? A ban on smoking in the home if children are present?

Education is always better than legislation and we would welcome the opportunity to work with the Scottish Government to encourage the small number of adults who still smoke in cars carrying children to change their behaviour without the need for heavy-handed legislation that a hard-pressed police force would find very difficult to enforce.

Opposing legislation that would make it an offence to smoke on NHS grounds, we added:

Smoking in the open air presents no risk to the health of non-smokers so a comprehensive ban on smoking on NHS grounds is disproportionate to the problem. The size and location of hospital grounds can vary enormously so it should be left to individual hospitals to decide on a policy rather than having a national one-size-fits-all policy forced upon them.

On the subject of smoking in children's outdoor areas, we wrote:

We don't condone smoking in children’s outdoor areas but we believe a national ban is heavy-handed and unnecessary. Relatively few adults still do it and there is no evidence that those who do light up in open air play areas pose any health risk to those around them, including children.

It has become fashionable for anti-smoking campaigners to say that adults must be role models for children and not smoke in view of them, but there is no evidence that the sight of a stranger smoking influences children to start smoking.

In general adult smokers know how to behave when it comes to smoking around children and they don’t need yet another law telling them what to do. It is not the job of government to micromanage people’s lives, especially when the overwhelming majority of smokers have already taken steps to change their behaviour voluntarily.

We are concerned that legislation will result not only in the further stigmatisation of smokers but will lead to a ban on smoking in other outdoor spaces where children might conceivably be present, even though there will be no threat to their health if someone lights up. At best this is an issue that should be left to local authorities. It is not a matter for national government.

Responding to the Scottish Government's insistence that all respondents should disclose whether they have any direct or indirect links to or receive funding from the tobacco industry, I concluded our submission as follows:

In view of the threat that e-cigarettes pose to other nicotine delivery systems such as nicotine patches and gum we are disappointed the Scottish Government has not asked respondents to disclose whether they have any direct or indirect links to, or receive funding from, the pharmaceutical industry.

For the sake of transparency we believe you should also have asked respondents to disclose whether they receive public funding, given that this sometimes results in a phenomenon known as 'government lobbying government'.

We'll upload the full submission on the Forest website in due course.

One thing that interests me is how many leading advocates of electronic cigarettes will join us in opposing further tobacco control policies that will in all likelihood be extended to vaping at some point in the future (if not immediately).

I couldn't help notice, for example, that the list of respondents to the UK Government consultation on smoking in private vehicles carrying children (published last month) featured very few organisations or bodies opposed to the measure.

A quick glance revealed only three: Forest, the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association and (I think) the AA. (I haven't read the AA's submission but comments I've read suggest they think legislation is unforceable.)

Of course, when the Government published its response to the consultation last month Twitter was ablaze with people aghast at the thought of legislation banning smoking in private vehicles (with or without children).

They included a significant number of vapers.

Such indignation would have carried far more weight had the the people involved submitted a response to the consultation.

I'll be fascinated to see who's responded to the Scottish Government consultation on e-cigs and "further tobacco control".

Given that some of Britain's most active anti-smoking campaigners are also worshipped as leading advocates for e-cigarettes, I'll be fascinated to read their submissions (or those of the bodies they work for).

My guess is they'll support further tobacco control measures while supporting a softly softly approach to e-cigarettes.

Whether they'll get their wish remains to be seen. I wouldn't bet on it.

Inviting government to adopt draconian policies on one product in the hope they'll become all gooey and liberal on another not dissimilar product is wishful thinking, I'm afraid.

Once politicians get a whiff of power they like to exercise it at every opportunity. As several of us keep saying, this is not about health, it's about control.

In my experience it's impossible to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Some people think differently, obviously. Time will tell.

Update: In its submission to the Scottish Government consultation the New Nicotine Alliance has responded only to "those questions which relate to our areas of competence (ie reduced risk nicotine products such as e-cigarettes)".

Consequently the NNA has chosen not to answer questions "on the wider issue of general tobacco control" including smoking in cars with children and smoking on NHS grounds.

I'm surprised but not surprised, if you know what I mean.

Given that a ban on smoking in cars with children and a ban on smoking on NHS grounds will sooner or later be extended to include e-cigarettes, it seems odd that the NNA (and, I'm guessing, other e-cig bodies) haven't dug in and expressed opposition to such policies.

I wish them luck but it's a dangerous game to play.

Wednesday
Dec312014

Was it something I wrote?

I must declare an interest.

On this day last year I wrote:

Something has always puzzled me about the honours list and it's this:

Why no gongs for the likes of Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH; Sheila Duffy, CEO of ASH Scotland; Fiona Andrews, director of Smokefree South West; or Andrea Crossfield, director of Tobacco Free Futures?

After all, it's titans of Tobacco Control like Deborah and Sheila who are often credited with introducing smoking bans and other measures that have saved tens of thousands of lives. Allegedly.

Surely they should receive recognition for their services to public health?

See New Year Honours: Arnott and Duffy overlooked again.

Well, there are still no gongs for Deborah and Sheila but, wait, what's this?

At least they're two of the nicer tobacco control campaigners. Next year, perhaps, they'll give one to Linda Bauld who comes into the same category (unlike some other people I could mention).

You read it here first.

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