Wednesday 16 May 2012

Government Cartoons*

I'd love to see a study comparing the total funding of corporate astroturfs** with government astroturfs.

There was much hue and cry about that the Association of Community Retailers, a lobby group for small retailers who'd bear some costs from changes to tobacco display regulations, had some administrative support from the tobacco industry. Keith Ng did some nice investigative work there. But the total value of tobacco industry support would have been what, Glen Inwood's pay plus a bit for a PR firm? It's pretty hard to imagine it being more than $250k per year. Even if we assume that the whole thing was run by the tobacco industry, the total spend on it can't have been much.

David Farrar reports on government astroturf funding:
The current ASH contract allows it to “liaise with government and private health agencies, the media and any other appropriate organisations to raise public awareness of tobacco related issues and developments”. It says it will “prepare and distribute media briefings, commentary and releases on key tobacco issues. This will include maintaining relationships with key media.”

A quick look at the ASH website makes it clear it is a lobby group, but a lobby group that gets 89% of its funding from the taxpayer. I am all in favour of taxpayer funding quit smoking initiatives, but not funding a lobby group. One of its values is “A dedication to influencing public policy and social norms to tobacco related harm.” It has a page on its current campaigns, of which seven are about law changes, only one is actually about quitting smoking,

The current ASH contract provides for it to receive $578,000 p.a of taxpayer money in 2012. I’d say the vast majority of this goes on lobbying and media activities.
That's in addition to ample government funding of the Public Health Association, the SmokeFree Coalition and others. Read Farrar's whole piece; he reckons there's at least a million dollars a year going from government to the various anti-tobacco groups whose main purpose is building public support for ever more draconian anti-tobacco legislation.

Government agencies are not allowed to contract with NGOs for lobbying. It violates Treasury guidelines; similar nonsense resulted in a State Services Commission investigation a decade ago. Again, read Farrar's whole post.

But I would bet against any SSC investigation this time around. Tony Ryall is Minister of Health and wouldn't put up with this kind of nonsense if it were under his bailiwick, but this is Tariana Turia's baby. She's the Associate Health Minister responsible for tobacco. When I wrote Ryall's office complaining of Turia's promotion of what I still regard as highly flawed tobacco costing figures, he punted it back to Turia; he seemed not to want to be involved in anything going on in the Associate Minister's office. SSC investigation would lead back to Turia's likely having signed off, and then the coalition agreement with the Maori Party would likely trump Treasury guidelines. And I'd expect the government to reckon it better not to have any SSC investigation than to get into that mess.

Things are little different in the UK either.

* keep you in your place.... [lyrics mildly NSFW]

** I thought the term was common knowledge, but Seamus was puzzled. Astroturf is the general term for a group that purports to be grassroots-based but is really corporate-sponsored. More effort seems to go into identifying corporate astroturf than government astroturf though; I call it part of the generalized problem of one-sided scepticism.


  1. The SSC's rule against lobbying is certainly enlightened, would be nice to see it enforced here. Definitely a lot better than the laws surrounding America's Director of National Drug Control Policy (commonly known as the "drug czar") who is under statutory obligation to "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of [any Schedule A] substance" -- which essentially amounts to a mandate to misrepresent the science and put a thumb on the scale of drug- research (especially since the same provision prohibits the drug control office from funding any research "relating to legalization".

  2. Please stop using the word astroturf.

    ACR claimed to funded by smaller retailers to represent the interests of small retailers, when virtually none of its "members" had given money or were aware of its activities. Its funding came from Imperial Tobacco (and others) to fight tobacco legislation in the interest of Imperial Tobacco. This difference - the fact that it's very existence is a lie - is why it's astroturfing, and why it's a problem.

    ASH does not hide its intentions (anti-smoking) nor its funding (primarily government). The fact that they are funded by government but are not government does not make it astroturfing. We don't, for example, say that Glenn Inwood is astroturfing when he represents Japanese whalers because he is neither Japanese nor (presumably) a whaler.

    The legitimacy of a government-funded NGO lobbying government is an entirely separate issue which has nothing to do with astroturfing. The use of the term on public health NGOs is a deliberate attempt by tobacco lobbyist to try to obfuscate the issue and legitimise their own tactics by saying everyone is "astroturfing". Please don't do the same.

    1. I'd agree except that that isn't the way the media plays ASH, SFC or the others.

      The same way that you found the media forgot that ACR was really tobacco-funded, the media paints ASH etc as being independent advocacy groups rather than being clients of the Ministry of Health.

      Look at the websites for NZ Drug Foundation, ASH, SFC and the rest. They all say they're funded by a mix of private donations and government grants. But you have to head over to the annual reports to find out that 89% of ASH's funding is government contracts and only 5% is private donations. ASH fights tobacco in the interests of the Ministry of Health. The SmokeFree coalition's site is more upfront, stating that the bulk of its funding is from government grants.

      I'll draw an equivalence between corporate astroturfs and government ones where they're both commonly portrayed as something other than arms of their funders.

    2. So a) we've gone beyond what they are or what they claim they are, and on to how they are perceived, and b) the falseness of that perception is that they're seen as 50% publicly-funded health nazis as opposed to 90% publicly-funded health nazis.

      That's pretty goddamn nuanced.

      The purpose of astroturfing is to create a false front because the message won't be credible if people found out its true author. Do you agree with me on this point?

      If so, the litmus test for astroturfing is pretty simple. Does an organisation's message become less credible once its backers are revealed? Is that organisation's very existence based on obfuscating that link?

    3. I think we differ a bit on starting premises, Keith. Most people rightly recognize that the tobacco industry would have particular policy preferences that largely correspond with doing well by their shareholders. And so they're pretty quick to discount funded groups or research. I think people go a bit too far in their updating on this one; while I think the tobacco industry is wrong about counterfeiting on plain packaging (just put anti-counterfeiting stuff on the plain packs!), they're not always wrong just because they have interests.

      But the Ministry of Health has its own pretty strong interests. One faction has what approaches religious zealotry on the tobacco file - it's a moral crusade. That's the bunch that released the preliminary tobacco costings without those numbers having gone through any QA. Another set will push anti-tobacco policy because, whether it's efficient in a global sense, it may reduce costs incurred by MoH [I'm not convinced it actually does in a life-cycle sense, but am open to the idea that it could]. And there are a regrettably small number who are numerate truth-seekers.

      How many people hearing on the radio "ASH Spokesperson Ben Youdan argues..." recognize that ASH is mostly an extension of the Ministry of Health (or, for that matter, an extension of the less credible part of it?)

      You are definitely right that public understanding of funding sources would lead them to discount ACR a lot more than they'd discount ASH. But once we allow for that the public suffers one-sided scepticism about funding sources, things get more complicated.

  3. of topic, but poor scots...