Monday, 21 May 2018

ASH's cash up for grabs

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has been scrounging from the unwitting British taxpayer from the moment it was created in 1971. This year - for the first time ever - the government has put its contract out to tender. This means that another organisation could step in and grab ASH's cash, which currently amounts to £140,000 a year.

It also means that we can see what ASH is supposed to be doing with its ill-gotten gains. Despite being a lobby group, it is not supposed to use the money for lobbying. Indeed, it is now strictly prohibited from using the money for lobbying or campaigning. Instead, it does things like 'help ensure that positive policy developments are encouraged' which is, of course, totally different.

Technically, ASH are given their money to support to 'support the Tobacco Control Plan for England'. For most of the last three years, there hasn't been a Tobacco Control Plan, so one wonders what they spent it on, but a new plan was finally published in July 2017, focusing on harm reduction.

The plan boasted that the smoking rate in England fell from 20.2 per cent to 15.5 per cent between 2011 and 2017 and set a target of 12 per cent by the end of 2022. The decline in smoking after 2011 was certainly sharp but it had precious little to do with ASH's neo-prohibitionist policies. Rather it was due to the rise of vaping which ASH only embraced belatedly and half-heartedly.

Moreover, the early indications suggest that the latest wave of ASH-endorsed policies, including plain packaging, banning packs of ten and the EU's anti-vaping laws, have led to the smoking rate rising again

It seems to me that the government should be funding groups that whole-heartedly support policies which will encourage people to switch from smoking to vaping rather than those that support policies which consistently backfire.

The plan also noted the opportunities presented by Brexit...

...the government will review where the UK’s exit from the EU offers us opportunities to re-appraise current regulation to ensure this continues to protect the nation’s health. We will look to identify where we can sensibly deregulate without harming public health or where EU regulations limit our ability to deal with tobacco.

The opportunities are obvious. Repeal the Tobacco Products Directive, get rid of the stupid restrictions on e-cigarettes and legalise snus. To my knowledge, ASH have not called for any of this. A few years ago I heard Deborah Arnott, ASH's CEO, say that she supported legalising snus but that it was pointless campaigning for it because the EU would never change its mind. After Brexit, the EU's stance will soon be irrelevant and yet she has said nothing about snus. If she is not prepared to deal with the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, her organisation should not be eligible for the grant.

The grant is worth a total of £420,000 over three years. By the time it runs out in 2021, ASH will have been subsidised by the government for half a century. Perhaps it's time to give somebody else a go.

It's pretty obvious that ASH are the Department of Health's preferred supplier. The public health minister has a picture of Deborah Arnott in his Twitter profile and there are all sorts of hoops to jump through for anyone who wants to win the contract. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see ASH face a bit of competition for the first time in their lives. The deadline for applications is 15 June.

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