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Saying no to the tobacco industry

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Bob Blackman, MP for Harrow East, former leader of Brent Council, member of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee and secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, sets out the perils for local authorities as the tobacco industry ramps up its lobbying tactics.

Why is this an important issue?

From April local authorities take on responsibility for tobacco control policies as part of their new public health role which includes responsibility for effective tobacco control. The coalition’s Tobacco Control Plan for England states clearly that local government should take action to protect their public health policies from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. This obligation is set out in Article 5.3 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which the UK government signed up to in 2004.

What does the tobacco industry do?

The tobacco industry has a history of becoming involved with local authorities in a range of activities including joint enforcement visits to retailers with Trading Standards and funding equipment such as scanners to identify counterfeit products. They sponsored a conference in February on serious and organised crime and were the sole exhibitor at the LGA’s smoke free conference in December 2012.

Imperial Tobacco, which has about a 45% share of the tobacco market in the UK, sponsors smoking areas at Bristol and Birmingham Airports. Following the opening of the smoking shelter at Bristol Airport in 2011, Iain Watkins, Imperial’s UK Communications Manager, said that “As the UK market leader it was important for Imperial to take the lead in challenging denormalisation and supporting the millions of adults who choose to smoke.” This highlights that the activities of the tobacco industry are in direct conflict with the role of local authorities to provide effective tobacco control.

In accordance with the FCTC it is imperative that local government does not “endorse, support, form partnerships with or participate in activities of the tobacco industry described as socially responsible”. Local authorities may not always be aware of tobacco industry involvement in local activities; for example, Imperial Tobacco is a founding partner of the Love Where You Live campaign launched by Keep Britain Tidy in 2012, which many local authorities currently support.

Why does the tobacco industry do it?

As a former council leader myself, I understand how important partnerships are in local government, but this is something different. The tobacco industry conducts activities which it describes as ‘socially responsible’ in order to improve its public relations and to promote tobacco consumption, and it will continue to endeavour to engage local authorities in these activities. Imperial has also sponsored the City of Bristol’s flagship museum, M Shed. It is hardly surprising that the industry responsible for causing 80,000 deaths in England every year is keen to improve its public image.

What are the responsibilities of local authorities?

My advice to councils would be to adopt a clear policy that recognises the burden of smoking on the health and wealth of the community, signs up to the Tobacco Control Plan for England and the WHO Framework convention and commits to protect local public health from the vested interest of the tobacco industry. There are some simple steps that every council could and should take to follow the guidelines for the implementation of Article 5.3:

  • meet with the tobacco industry only in so far as is necessary under responsibilities to regulate it;
  • publish full details of any meetings between the tobacco industry and members or officers;
  • refuse any funding from the tobacco industry for public health or other council work;
  • refuse any partnerships with the tobacco industry in tackling illicit tobacco;
  • refuse to participate in any tobacco industry “corporate social responsibility” activity.

Local authorities now have a great opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of their residents by developing comprehensive tobacco control strategies. We know that smoking is responsible for half of the health inequalities found in our local authorities, and that if we can support two adults in a household to stop smoking we can put up to £5,000 back into the family budget of some of our most disadvantaged families. However, the tobacco industry is well aware of this potential and therefore local authorities must be alert to the innovative and often covert tactics that the tobacco industry will use to undermine effective tobacco control.

Bob Blackman MP (Con), former leader of Brent LBC, member of the CLG Select Committee and secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health


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