Monday 6 June 2016

ASH: the early years

In the last post I showed some ASH documents from the 1980s when they were fighting for snus to be banned. While I was in the Wellcome library five years ago I also looked at some documents from 1970-71 when ASH was being formed. I wish I'd seen some of this stuff when I was writing Velvet Glove, Iron Fist because there are some interesting nuggets. Here's the story...

The National Society for Non-Smokers (NSNS) had been formed in the 1920s. Lennox Johnston was its most notable member and they were a lone voice in the wilderness in the golden age of smoking that followed. To be blunt, they were considered cranks.

In July 1970, they held a conference at which they announced the following policy goals: the elimination of cigarette coupons; a ban on all forms of tobacco advertising; a smoking ban in all government buildings, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, buses, trains and aircraft (with “separate accommodation, if desired, being provided for smokers”); a ban on cigarette vending machines; licensing for tobacconists, and a ban on duty free cigarettes. Pretty extreme stuff for 1970.

On 16th September that year, T. W. Hurst, the chairman of the NSNS, discussed setting up an anti-smoking pressure group with the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). The organisation was initially going to be called the National Council on Smoking and Health.

Hurst was optimistic about being able to raise the funds and attract many members. He wrote...

...the new National Council must have teeth and to have teeth it must have financial support. It would be reasonable to expect that the member organisations of the Council should contribute annually, but this sum would obviously be limited and in my view a National Appeal should be launched as soon as possible for say £500,000 to enable the work of the Council to proceed effectively. I am sure this sum could be raised and in this connection the question of the new Council being registered as a Charity for tax purposes should be considered.

A working party got underway on 24th September 1970 at which the name was discussed...

The title of the new organisation was discussed. Dr. Hunt felt that the word “commission” was stronger than “council”. He also felt that good initials were of the utmost importance as, for instance, “A.S.H.” which might stand for the “Association on Smoking and Health."

(Incidentally, the document from which this quote is taken also contains the observation that 'the actual consumption of cigarettes had not gone down in the areas in which advertising had been prohibited.')

At this point the main players were Lord Rosenheim (RCP), Dr Ball (RCP), Dr William Jones (Health Education Council) and Dr Harding (Medical Officers of Health). They considered calling their group British Action on Smoking and Health to distinguish it from the American ASH but the acronym BASH was considered unhelpful and by November they had settled on Action on Smoking and Health. However, they were finding it harder than expected to attract any donations, let alone the £500,000 they anticipated...

The Royal College of Physicians has lent A.S.H £1,500 to cover the initial running costs… Apart from the cheque from the College, A.S.H. has received no money so far.

They hoped the money would start pouring in once ASH became known and so decided to approach businesses and wealthy individuals such as Rupert Murdoch and David Frost as a stop gap. At one point they even considered asking the tobacco industry for a donation!

The object of the initial appeal is to raise sufficient funds to launch an effective national fund-raising campaign at a later date in order to obtain the money required for ASH to be a viable independent organisation.

Dr Robert Murray, medical advisor to the TUC, was invited to join the ASH committee, leading to this interesting exchange in August 1970...

Murray: 'I should say that I have been a pipe smoker since 1947 when the first evidence of cigarettes smoking and lung cancer began to appear. I am quite prepared to defend pipe smoking but I hold no brief for cigarette smoking. If you think that this is a disqualification for service on the committee, please let me know.'

G. M. Tibbs (RCP company secretary): 'Your pipe will certainly not be a disqualification for service on the committee. It is really cigarettes we are after!'

By the end of 1970, ASH were ready to launch. A document dated 30th December contains another comment that you would never hear from ASH today...

Most people start to smoke by observing other people smoking, and by copying them. It would be unfair on the tobacco industry to suggest that they play an important role in initiating smoking. But their activities certainly encourage and strengthen the habit.

Minutes from a meeting in April 1971 show that ASH were still finding fund-raising difficult and had applied for the first of their many government grants that would sustain them for decades...

If the DHSS turned down the request for the grant for ‘ASH’ money would have to be obtained some other way. .. If the DHSS did nor grant the appeal from ‘ASH’ for funds, there would probably have to be a further loan from the [Royal] College [of Physicians].

One option under consideration was a donation from Wrigleys, the chewing gum company. ASH approached them and were told...

Wrigleys were willing to donate to ‘ASH’ anonymously. They required to know what they would gain from this though... It was agreed that we could not give any commitment that we would advertise their gum, but only imply that if they are helpful, we will be too.

A letter of 26th March 1971 written to ASH's first director, John Dunwoody of the Royal College of Physicians, explains that the RCP's recent report on smoking and health had been of benefit to the chewing gum industry...

I have spoken, informally, and without committing you to anything, to the Managing Director of Wrigleys the chewing gum people. He is very conscious of the fact that his sales went up when your report was published and have now gone down again. He would be very interested to talk to you and us about handing over part of his advertising budget to help ASH to persuade people not to smoke. 

A document from around the same time notes that chewing gum sales rose by 30 per cent after the RCP report was published and suggests that 'approaches be made to companies which stand to benefit commercially by a decrease in smoking and consequent increase in their potential market'. Companies under consideration included Rowntree, Mars, Cadbury and Golden Wonder. 

Unfortunately for taxpayers, ASH's approaches to the confectionery industry seem to have come to nought. By May, there was still no reply from the DHSS and money continued to be front of mind...

The number one priority was to get out of the position of not having enough money to run the Company, and a full-time secretariat.

ASH eventually got their grant and spent the next forty years appealing for more cash from the government while assuring the Department of Health that they were looking for alternative sources of revenue.

ASH finally managed to get a significant amount of non-government funding a few years ago when Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation started hiving off a few hundred thousand pounds to them. The document below from the 1970s shows that the idea of getting big charities to support ASH was not new.

In the 1970s, ASH was dependent on the DHSS for 90 per cent or more of its donations and the government seems to have been worried about being accused of sock-puppetry by funding them to such an extent. The document below says the DHSS was 'particularly anxious not to place themselves in a position where they could be accused of financing a pressure group directed against the tobacco industry' and urged ASH to find some 'independent finance'.

Note also in the document above the reference to lowering tar yields in cigarettes. The history of 'light' cigarettes has been rewritten in recent years to make it look as if making cigarettes less dangerous by reducing tar yields was an industry con. In fact, it was an important goal of anti-smoking groups for many years. EU restrictions on tar yields mean that all cigarettes on the market today are low or very low tar compared to the average cigarette in the 1970s. Whether they are any less harmful is a moot point, but it was government as much as industry that brought about the change.

Lowering tar yields was mentioned again in the minutes of a meeting between ASH and the DHSS in January 1977, along with advertising restrictions and health warnings. These were the 'priorities' of government health officials who said they would 'welcome pressure from ASH'.

This is pure sock-puppetry. The government gives ASH money, tells them what to campaign on and says they 'welcome' the pressure their campaigning creates. ASH have been doing this for decades.

By the late 1980s, still reliant on government hand outs, ASH wrote this begging letter to the government...

Nothing had changed by 1993. With a budget of £400,000 and eleven staff, most of their income was still coming from the Department of Health and ASH's director, David Pollock, admitted in his grant application that...

...we have made repeated and determined efforts to raise funding elsewhere and to earn income through our own efforts, without making any significant contribution to core costs... Anti-smoking activity is not a popular cause for donors.


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