Friday 29 October 2010

Government, lobby thyself

Simon Clark finds that more than two-thirds of submissions on anti-tobacco measures in Britain were form letters from government-funded anti-tobacco lobby groups.
But was there really huge public support for further tobacco controls, as the DH suggested? Of the 96,515 responses the overwhelming majority were pre-written postcards or e-mail campaigns. A total of 49,507 were generated by Smokefree Northwest, 8,128 by Smokefree North East, and a further 10,757 from something called D-MYST.

A simple investigation revealed that all three are publicly-funded. Smokefree Northwest is led by the DH’s regional tobacco policy manager in Manchester; Smoke Free North East is funded by the region's primary care trusts and is linked to an alliance of health, public sector and community organisations; and D-MYST is SmokeFree Liverpool’s youth organisation.

In short, this wasn’t a public consultation at all. It was a public sector consultation.

Factor in the £191,000 that the DH gave the anti-smoking charity ASH for its ‘Beyond Smoking Kills’ report (which also, surprise, surprise, found a “high level of public support” for a range of tobacco control measures) and you don't have to be a genius to realise that the result of the “public consultation” was effectively manipulated to favour the Labour Government’s tobacco control policy.
Clark then points to a report showing some of the government money that goes to fund anti-tobacco lobbying in the UK.
Some public sector funding is far less obvious than the direct employment of external consultants. The UK tobacco control industry receives the vast majority of its funding from the public purse, but through a variety of methods:
  • A range of local and regional organisations (Smokefree partnerships) are entirely funded with public money through local government grants or NHS/Primary Care Trust funding;
  • Some university departments dedicated to tobacco control (eg. the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies), receive funding from central government (Department of Health) and the NHS/Primary Care Trusts;
  • Several charities entirely dedicated to tobacco control lobbying of central government are almost entirely funded by central government.
Mark Littlewood at the IEA:
In so far as the Big Society agenda is comprehensible at all, it applauds and encourages private initiatives as opposed to state-run or state-sponsored programmes. Surely this must apply to the field of public discourse and debate, not just to public spirited behaviour such as keeping the local park tidy and repainting the church hall.

The problem with taxpayer support of groups such as ASH is not just that it forces people to fund campaign groups they may disagree with, but that there is a danger that the public believe that such groups really are private and completely independent. There may be a debate to be had about what sort of role the Department of Health should play in encouraging or facilitating smoking cessation, but at least when you hear from a health minister you can be reasonably clear where they are coming from.

The government needs to be clear about limiting the scope of the public sector, not merely its size. Removing taxpayer-funded grants to groups such as ASH will not make a substantial impact on the deficit, but it would indicate that the government is opposed to using public funds to “load the dice” in areas of campaigning. The coalition should ensure that anti-tobacco groups are obliged to stand on their own two feet.

It's pretty much certain that a New Zealand replication of the study would find rather similar results.

HT: Puddlecote and Snowdon.

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