By Sheila Duffy
Chief Executive of ASH Scotland
Scotland has long suffered jokes about the health record of its citizens, and laboured under the “sick man of Europe” tag. Tobacco is the single largest contributor to that problem, with smoking implicated in one in four deaths in this country and with a greater impact on mortality than social class.
Yet Scotland is fighting back, and successive Scottish administrations have tackled the issue head-on, implementing world-leading public health policies to address the problem of tobacco. Perhaps the high-point in this work so far came with the introduction of smoke-free public places in advance of the rest of the UK. Smoking rates have halved from 47 per cent in 1972 to 24 per cent now, and the success of tobacco control efforts was highlighted recently with the publication of figures showing the lowest rates of youth smoking since records began in the mid 1980s.
Sadly not everyone welcomes this progress. The powerful tobacco industry has fought these public health measures every inch of the way – and their lies, trickery and legal challenges risk turning Scotland from leader to laggard in tobacco control.
This week, on Wednesday 16 May, tobacco industry lawyers will once again appear in the Scottish courts to oppose public health legislation. This time it is the ban on cigarette vending machines, passed overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament back in 2010. Such vending machines, implicated in young people accessing cigarettes, have already disappeared in England. Large, bright tobacco displays have now been removed from English supermarkets. The laws to do the same in Scotland have twice been upheld by the courts, but a quirk in the Scottish legal system allows a final appeal to the UK Supreme Court and of course the industry lawyers are fighting it to the last.
Most recently, a joint UK and Scottish Government consultation on requiring tobacco to be sold in plain packaging has been met with a furious industry response, and many of their familiar tactics. The industry has funded “grassroots” opposition, saturated retail sector media with scare-mongering stories and threatened further legal action.
Tobacco industry opposition to public health measures is a global problem, with legal challenges to public health measures underway from Australia to Uruguay. Yet there is also a global mechanism to respond. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the first international public health treaty. Brokered by the World Health Organisation 174 governments are parties to the FCTC, representing 90 per cent of the world’s population.
As a signatory to the FCTC the UK, and hence the Scottish Government, is required to protect public health from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention recognises the “irreconcilable conflict” between public health and tobacco industry interests and requires governments to engage with the industry only so far as is absolutely necessary to organise effective regulation.
Here is an ideal opportunity for the Scottish Government to regain the initiative. Scottish ministers already keep tobacco industry representatives at some distance, but committing to fully implement Article 5.3 means agreeing to full transparency in all contacts with the industry, and also with those such as lawyers, PR firms and lobby groups working on their behalf. It would involve encouraging a policy of disinvestment of public money from tobacco shares. It should require a special declaration of any tobacco connections or interests from any individuals and organisations engaging in public health policy discussions.
The tobacco industry is a public pariah. In a recent YouGov poll only 7 per cent of Scots agreed that “the tobacco industry can be trusted to tell the truth”, and for good reason. They have a long history of lying and manipulating to place their profits above the interests of public health. The Scottish Government committing to fully comply with Article 5.3 would send a clear message that the tobacco industry has no role to play in determining the public health policies of our nation.