Sunday 20 December 2015

The Dry January money pit

'Public health' campaigners love their conspiracy theories. Theirs is a world of shadowy figures and brown envelopes in which nothing is ever as it seems. Remember all that bullshit about how David Cameron wasn't going to bring in plain packaging because one of his advisers ran a public affairs agency that had a tobacco company on its books? Just as the glorious Soviet enterprise was undermined by capitalist 'wreckers', so too is the great public health enterprise.

A lot of these theories are so stupid that they cannot be said out loud, they can only be implied with vague references to 'vested interests' and 'putting the fox in charge of the hen house'. For example, I was amused to see this in the Daily Mail last week...

The NHS’s Dry January campaign is being run by a PR firm receiving millions from the drinks industry.

What? Dry January is officially an NHS project now, is it? Last I heard it was being run by Alcohol Concern, an ostensibly independent charity.

Officials are paying Freuds thousands of pounds to handle the marketing for the drive which urges Britons to give up alcohol next month. But the same firm also oversees the advertising for Diageo, the drinks giant behind brands including Guinness, Baileys and Smirnoff vodka.

Experts said it was nonsense for such an important public health campaign to be run by a firm with a clear ‘vested interest’. Controversially, Freuds also runs the PR for the NHS’s anti-obesity drive Change4Life – whilst also doing the advertising for Mars, KFC and Pepsi.

Consider what is being implied here. The suggestion—surely—is that this PR company is covertly undermining Dry January and Change4Life from within in order to please its industry clients. I can see no other reason why this should be considered controversial or newsworthy (there is, I suppose, the possibility that Freuds are undermining Diageo and Pepsi's advertising to please its government clients, but I doubt that possibility has even occurred to the 'experts').

Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies [previously known as the UK Temperance Alliance - CJS] said: ‘The public have a right to independent public health information, delivered by experts who have no vested interests. It’s putting public health at risk.

‘Relying on organisations who receive funds from alcohol companies to offer up advice on how to reduce drinking is like putting a fox in charge of a hen house.’

Is it, Katherine? Is it really? Then perhaps you'd like to expand on that. Perhaps you'd like to explain exactly what it is you're accusing this company of. While you're at it, you could give us some evidence and examples?

She won't, of course. There is no evidence whatsoever for this wrecking theory and anybody who made the implicit message explicit would probably be sued for libel.

There is a genuine scandal here, but it has nothing to do with the temperance lobby's vague ad hominem slurs. The real scandal, as usual, is the misuse of taxpayers' money.

Public Health England, the Government agency responsible, would not disclose how much money it had paid the firm for either campaign.

But financial accounts show it is about £90,000 a month, just under £1 million a year.

I have no idea if these figures are correct, but if the true total is even a fraction of £1 million it is a disgrace. We know for certain that Public Health England spent half a million pounds on Dry January this year and, contrary to the first line of the Mail's report, Dry January is not an NHS project. It was created by Alcohol Concern as a fund-raising project and continues to be run by them.

We don't know how many people participated in Dry January this year. Alcohol Concern claimed it was two million but reduced this to 50,000 under questioning. In 2014, it was a mere 17,000. I will bet you a pound to a penny that they raised less from Dry January than Public Health England spent promoting it (it made £38,000 in 2013).

Meanwhile, Cancer Research runs the strikingly similar Dryathalon every January without any public subsidy and gets more people to sign up. The question is therefore not which PR agency Public Health England should be using but why they are spending our money on this superfluous and ineffective initiative at all.

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