Inside Track by Ian Willmore
It has now been widely reported that the health lobby’s campaign to end all smoking in workplaces and public places is about to be crowned with success. Comprehensive legislation is about to be passed in Scotland, with Wales and Northern Ireland to follow shortly. Although the Government’s proposals for England still offer exemptions for wet-led pubs and some clubs, these exemptions are likely to be dropped after the current consultation period on the Health Bill comes to an end. From ASH’s point of view: result, all round. But less widely known are the tactics and principles deployed to win this remarkable result, and in the process defeat the powerful tobacco, drinks and hospitality trade lobbies. The campaign has been interesting, and for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, instructive. At every turn the rather plodding industry trade bodies have been out-maneuvered. If I were paying subs to these bodies, I would certainly be asking for a review of their lobbying and PR tactics. Here are some outline lessons they might care to consider. First, choose your ground. Any army commander worth his salt chooses the ground for battle with great care. For the public health lobby, the ground on which to fight this battle has always been workplace health and safety. The scientific evidence that secondhand smoke is a workplace health and safety risk is now conclusive, although the extent of the risk remains a matter for further study. In this regard, the November 2004 report of the Government’s own advisers the Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health was decisive. Fifteen of the most eminent medical scientists in the country concluded that secondhand smoke was a health risk. No business leader or trade body spokesman can get far in attacking that. Framing the issue in this way also frustrates attempts by the opposition to fight on better ground from their point of view – such as resistance to state interference in people’s personal choices. It also presents employers’ organizations with a dilemma. Either follow the tobacco lobby and simply deny the science – hardly a credible position – or concede that employees and members of the public are being exposed to risk. In which case the question inevitably arises – what are you doing to protect them? Note in this context, that real motives may differ from stated positions. Of course, the health lobby’s main objective is get smokers to quit. Workplace smoking restrictions will probably cut smoking rates from one in four adults to closer to one in five, a huge gain for public health. Many more smokers’ lives will be saved by quitting than non-smokers lives saved by not breathing in other people’s smoke, but without the risk to non-smokers, legal restrictions on smokers cannot be justified on traditional liberal principles. People are free to harm themselves, but not others. On the other side, tobacco industry front groups such as FOREST talk a lot about "freedom", but their real motive is to undermine the effect of workplace restrictions on cigarette sales. A now famous internal document from Philip Morris reported that smokers in smoke-free workplaces "consume 11-15% less cigarettes than average, and quit at a rate that is 84% higher than average" while "milder workplace restrictions like smoking only in designated areas have much less impact on quitting rates and very little impact on consumption". Secondly, use the principle of leverage. Archimedes said "Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth". A small mass using the right lever can move a much larger body. Small organisations such as NGOs can move governments and business, provided they use the right lever. Once the workplace health and safety risk is conceded, how can any compromise short of stopping smoking ever work? Proposals for separate smoking areas in pubs, or no smoking at the bar, or better ventilation or any one of a thousand bodge solutions can easily be attacked, because they cannot be shown to eliminate the risk, and because many of them (particularly the suggested exemption for wet-led pubs) offer full protection to most employees and none at all to others. The attempts by some big pub chains, the BBPA and others to revive the lifeless corpse of the "voluntary approach" and other "pathetic compromises" (to quote former Health Secretary Frank Dobson MP) were doomed from the moment that public opinion recognised the issue of health and safety. Thirdly, maneuver with speed and hit the weak spot in the opposition position. In the words of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, "always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy if possible". Three years ago, ASH was told by politicians and civil servants that smoke-free legislation was not politically possible. Two years ago, when the Labour Party began its "Big Conversation" process – putting together its Election manifesto – party officials described national legislation as "an extremist solution". The health lobby could not even get a meeting with officials without FOREST and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association being invited as well. To get round this block, we staged an acrimonious showdown at a meeting with Labour National Executive Members, and then put up a Labour local councillor (who also works full-time for the NHS on tobacco control) to suggest that local councils be given powers to act in their areas. Grateful for what seemed a modest compromise, Labour adopted this idea and consulted on it. The public health lobby then went back to the hospitality trade bodies and did some raucous taunting about how their opposition to national legislation had ended with the worse possible option from their point of view, different rules in different towns and cities across the UK. The trade bodies, much to our satisfaction, responded by saying that they would even prefer national legislation to this option. And we in turn reflected this view back to Government. The result exceeded our expectations: suddenly national legislation became the only option on the table and the debate shifted to how comprehensive it should be. Fourthly, seize your opportunities. The campaign for smoke-free legislation in the UK has been hugely helped by developments in Ireland, where former Health Minister Micheal Martin led a courageous and successful fight for a new law. It proved to be popular, easy to enforce, and highly successful. Journalists and politicians alike flocked to Dublin, often on visits arranged by the health lobby, and many changed their views as a result. The other great star of the campaign in the UK has been the Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, who pressed the case for smoke-free legislation with great vigour despite the clear hostility of former Health Secretary John Reid. Finally, learn the lessons of the swarm. One bee cannot kill an elephant. But many bees can. One bee can be swatted, but ten thousand cannot. Successful NGO campaigning cannot be organised on command and control principles. ASH cannot tell the British Medical Association, or the TUC, or the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health or any of the other major players in our coalition what to do. If we ever tried, we would rightly get short shrift. But we can provide a central intelligence, information, and a sense of direction to the campaign. By this means ASH can animate a powerful swarm. If trade bodies are ever to be effective in lobbying, public relations and campaigning, they need to learn lessons from their opponents. It will be interesting to see what lessons the hospitality trades learn from the campaign on secondhand smoke. Ian Willmore is public affairs manager for ASH (Action on Smoking and Health)