Time for local authorities to kick the habit and ditch their investments in the tobacco industry

It's hugely hypocritical to tell smokers to quit while making money from them

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Each year 100,000 people in the UK die from smoking. No surprise then that the Government wants 210,000 people to quit the habit every year until 2015, as part of a smoking cessation scheme. But, in a move akin to giving lung cancer patients’ cigarettes at the same time as chemotherapy – the public sector, through the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), has over £1 billion invested in tobacco companies. Hypocritical doesn’t begin to cover it.

When responsibility for public health was passed over from NHS to local authorities in April this year, these public institutes became responsible for tobacco control in their local areas. Yet, these bodies whose job it is to improve public health have money invested in companies such as British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco.  They say they have a fiduciary obligation to maximize return on investment. Still, it begs the question: why do Local Authorities invest in an industry that kills people, and one they’re simultaneously trying to halt?

Last year Stewart Brock, Honorary Research Fellow at University of Bath, used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal the extent of local authorities’ tobacco investments, and found that only 10 of 78 Local Authorities had no investments in tobacco, while the collective investment was reported to be a massive £1.6bn. This hit the news, and then - as is the nature of news -everyone moved on. The subject seems to have fallen deathly quiet of late.

But to this day we are reminded of the terrible damage smoking causes to public health - and the huge amount it costs the NHS -  by institutes that have large sums of money invested in  said industries. Merton Council is a good example – they have £5m invested in tobacco; yet spend a reported £164,000 on NHS Stop Smoking services.

Dr. Gabriel Scally, former Regional Director of Public Health for South West, said: “local authorities should divest [these interests] – firstly, it’s grossly unethical and potentially challengeable in law, and secondly there are plenty of other good things they could invest that money in, for example social bonds or housing.

“There’s a range of alternatives they have and they need to start living up to their obligations to improve public health. They obviously put financial benefits before the health of people in their local area.”

It's hard to argue with Dr. Scally's statement. The sad thing is that people carrying out good work in smoking prevention, such as Action on Smoking and Health, a charity, are being undermined by local authorities’ absurd investment schemes. MPs and public health professionals should be more vocal, and campaign against this hypocritical ‘do as I say, not as I do’ position.

The last public health professional to speak out against these controversial investments was Dr. Marion Gibbon, in an appearance on BBC Radio Kent a couple of months ago. Gibbon was subsequently given the option to either accept a warning, which would stay on record for 12 months, or face disciplinary action for the broadcast. Kent Council was accused of gagging free speech. Surely their actions send out a warning to health professionals who do not follow the party line, and such censorship is shameful and undemocratic. 

The guardians of public health should start complying with their own mission statements on tobacco control and prevention, or expect the erosion of public trust. It’s tough to marry ethics and investment, but this particular union is long overdue a divorce.

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