Wednesday 31 January 2018

ASH's Snus Flip Flop

Following the revelation last week that the UK Government - despite claiming it wished to "maximise the availability of safer alternatives to smoking" in its Tobacco Control Plan in July - had defended the EU's ridiculous and damaging ban on snus at the European Court of Justice, I wondered if they had received any input from their favourite state-funded political lobby group, ASH.

It's well known that crass ignorance from ASH during David Simpson's tenure (see Snowdon's trawl though history here) was the prime motivator behind the ban in the UK and, subsequently, a ban across the EU in 1992.

However, in the early 2000s, ASH seemed to have changed their tune. In Clive Bates's time in charge, there seemed to be a more enlightened outlook, as Debs Arnott explained herself at a GFN event that I attended at London's Guildhall in May 2012. Her exact words were:
My predecessor, Clive Bates, I remember very clearly one of the first things he said to me "tobacco harm reduction is the most important thing ASH should be doing". And I said "well, actually we're trying to get a ban on smoking in public places and that's going to take a lot of effort." He said "no, you've got to get onto harm reduction. It was going to take so long to do something about it." And he was absolutely right, I have to say.
In fact, in 2006 this seemed to be what was happening, as the BBC reported at the time.
Anti-smoking charity Ash is one of the groups that wants snus to be legalised across the European Union. 
Deborah Arnott, director of Ash, said: "Smokeless tobacco is much less harmful than smoked tobacco. It is smoking something which makes it really dangerous." 
She said other forms of chewing tobacco originating in South Asia were readily and legally available in the UK - and were much more injurious to health. 
"We currently have a situation where the safest form of smokeless tobacco in the EU is banned, and that's the form on sale in Sweden."
Now, this is where it gets interesting. You see, these days ASH claim they are in favour of tobacco harm reduction (THR) yet we heard nothing by way of protest at the UK government doing its damnedest to wreck the case for legalising snus at the ECJ. Arnott was quick to condemn the government defending a UK business in Panama, Venezuela and Laos a few days later, but we heard not a dickie bird about the snus case.

This is most probably because ASH appear to have flip-flopped on snus. In 2010, Snowdon asked the question of which way ASH would go on snus in the EU consultation exercise. We now know that they went for prohibition. This is the consultation question:

And here is ASH's response (page 502):

So when given the opportunity to say the ban on snus should be lifted, ASH swerved it and plumped for the continued prohibition of, in Arnott's own words, "the safest form of smokeless tobacco in the EU".

You have to wonder exactly what happened between 2006 and 2010, because the tumbleweed from ASH after the snus case last week tends to suggest that they haven't changed their position. And considering the Tobacco Control Plan - that ASH spent so long pleading for - advocates maximising options for THR, once again Arnott's own words as quoted in the Guardian on Monday apply here ... "the word hypocrisy hardly does it justice".

So many questions, huh? Why did the enlightened attitude fostered by Clive Bates evaporate? Did Arnott get bored and just yearn for hardline prohibition instead? She certainly did her level best to strangle e-cigs at birth by lobbying relentlessly against them and enthusiastically supporting the TPD's sanctions against vaping at every juncture. And we know in 2010 that any inclination ASH had in 2006 about legalising snus had vanished.

Or is it Arnott's position of influence at the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) which is behind this? The WHO and FCTC are more interested in fighting tobacco companies than doing anything good for health, and seeing as snus is derived from tobacco, that will never do.

The problem is that since Arnott spoke about the importance of THR at the Guildhall in 2012, her organisation has done very little to advance the case for harm reduction and has done much to hinder it. ASH's substantial influence in Whitehall has conspicuously not been used to push for the re-legalisation of snus, which could have motivated the government to either not testify against the ECJ case or even, maybe, support it.

And lastly, I expect ASH's next grant for political lobbying will be described as something like "supporting delivery of the tobacco control plan". If they are going to be absolutely silent on the snus ban, spurn all opportunities to make snus available, and take the WHO/FCTC fingers in ears denial line instead of advocating for THR, why should they get a single penny?

But then maybe ASH just says what they know government wants to hear - they receive lots of money from the state, after all - and if the UK was arguing against legalising snus, well that's just hot damn what ASH is going to do too. Yes it's not about health but those salaries don't grow on trees you know. 

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