Tuesday 1 June 2010

ASH: throwing stones from their glass house

ASH (UK) have produced a profoundly underwhelming report (The Smoke Filled Room) about the shadowy world of tobacco industry lobbying. But, as Taking Liberties and Dick Puddlecote have pointed out, it's not really that shadowy and ASH have failed to unearth anything that wasn't already common knowledge. Did anyone ever doubt that organisations like the European Cigar Manufacturers Association or the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association were funded by the tobacco industry?

Like a middle-aged pop group playing their greatest hits to a declining fan base, ASH are trying to relive the glory days of the 'Mr Butts' documents. Those documents were fascinating at the time and continue to be a useful resource. Back in the mid-90s, they shone much light on the workings of America's tobacco industry, but ASH haven't found any new secret papers and instead resort to reprinting things like this...

Call this article lobbying if you like, but it's hardly covert or underhand. It's clearly written by the General Manager of Imperial Tobacco and the Imperial logo is in the bottom corner. It even says 'advertorial' at the top.

There's an air of desperation to this effort. Under the category of "front men, moles and advocates" we find people like Chris Proctor who, we are told, was "a senior research scientist at BAT during the 1980s." Well, yes, and he is still is, as he makes clear in every letter he writes to the press (including the one reprinted on the back cover of ASH's report):

Dr Chris Proctor,

Chief scientific officer, British American Tobacco

I have a copy of Proctor's book—Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette. (If you're interested in the industry's attempts to make cigarettes safer, you'll find it a very interesting read, with a lot of information you won't find elsewhere.) His biography on the dust-jacket begins "Chris Proctor is the Head of Science and Regulation for British American Tobacco" and he starts the book by explaining who he is and what he does for a living. This seems pretty transparent to me. What exactly is the problem? 

The problem seems to be not that there is a secret underworld of lobbying, but that the industry is allowed to have a voice at all. But griping about lobbying is a bit rich coming from ASH who, until recently, were one of the most effective lobbyists of them all. For them to imply that their opponents in the tobacco lobby are the ones pulling the strings in the world of politics is just plain daft, as Simon Clark (of FOREST) points out:

“In the past decade the government has banned all tobacco advertising and sponsorship. Smoking is banned in all enclosed public places, and the previous government was planning to ban the display of tobacco in shops and prohibit cigarette vending machines. For ASH to complain about the influence of big tobacco on health policy is laughable and absurd.”

It's richly ironic that the document is titled 'The Smoke Filled Room' when, thanks to ASH's lobbying, there are no smoke filled rooms, even in cigarette company offices. Despite the supposed influence of Big Tobacco, they were all made illegal in 2007.

ASH evidently object to tobacco lobbying even when that lobbying is perfectly transparent and regardless of what is being lobbied for. For example, under the heading of 'front groups' they include the European Smokeless Tobacco Council (ESTOC), noting that their objective is "the worldwide legalization of Swedish snus and other smokeless tobacco products, based on a regulatory framework." 

Well yes, but so what? As I have argued here before, the legalisation of safer tobacco products is good public health policy. Last time I checked, one of ASH's objectives was to legalise snus as well:

ASH believes that there is no logic to the banning of snus, when cigarettes, which are far more deadly, are on general sale, but that snus should not simply be de-regulated. 

Director of ASH, Deborah Arnott, said “If oral snuff is legalised as a result of the legal challenge to the EU by Swedish Match, it should be regulated so that standards are set for the levels of toxins and carcinogens in all tobacco, whether it is smoked or not. Consumer Information and labelling of such products should be strictly controlled by the regulator to prevent them from being promoted to attract new users.”

That was in 2004, and ASH have been strangely quiet on the subject in the years since. Seeing as ASH no longer lift a finger to fight for safer tobacco products, it is left to groups like ESTOC  to lobby for a policy that could help bring lung cancer rates down to the levels seen in Sweden. Regardless of their funding source, this is something that should be welcomed by anyone who is more interested in public health than in fighting tooth and nail with Big Tobacco.

A cynic would say that ASH's recent silence on the snus issue is due to their friends and sponsors in the pharmaceutical industry, who view it as a threat to their share of the nicotine market. And this is the great hypocrisy of the ASH report. It takes a brass neck to publish 48 pages of ad hominem on the subject of industry lobbying and conflicts of interests when you don't offer full disclosure of your own funding sources. Twice in the report, ASH declare their funding thus:

There is no mention of the cash they receive from government, nor any mention of the pharmaceutical companies who fund ASH International, ASH Wales and various anti-smoking conferences (such as this one coming up in Glasgow). ASH's accounts show:

ASH International is funded by Nicorette manufacturer Pfizer. ASH, meanwhile, receives very little money in donations from the public, is not staffed by volunteers, holds charitable status and is primarily a lobby group. By its own definition, then, ASH could be described as an 'industry funded front group.'

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the report is that despite a worldwide press release, it has yet to be picked up by a single newspaper. This is partly due to inept handling by ASH. It must have seemed a canny idea to publish it on World No Tobacco Day, but in Britain that also happened to be a bank holiday—never the best time to get media coverage. 

But it must also be seen as a sign of the media's weariness with ASH and their ever escalating demands. There is no real appetite for plain packaging and tobacco display bans (which is what this report is really about), and editors seem to have little desire to help ASH scrape this particular barrel. Whoever funded this report didn't get their money's worth.


Anonymous said...

Suggest you forward this to the Charities Commission. They should find the conflict of interest regarding the support of snus very worrying if they are doing their job properly.

Ben said...

Excellent article, thanks Chris.

Michael J. McFadden said...

Well done Chris. Heh... ya gotta love it. The ONLY four main sponsors listed for the smoking cessation conference are ALL NicoGummyPatchyProductPeople, aren't they? GSK, McNeil, Novartis (is their new logo "Nicotinell"? Or is that a product pic?) and Pfizer.

Can you imagine if we tried to hold an "independent" conference on "Secondary Smoke And Health" and listed our three main sponsors as BAT, PM, RJR, and JTI ?


Michael J. McFadden

Anonymous said...

Curious -the ASH press release seems to have vanished? Can we expect a re-run?