Hoe de anti-rokers Engeland veroverden

Nog in 2003 werd door de Labour partij in het Verenigd Koninkrijk op een voorstel voor een totaal rookverbod van anti-rokersorganisatie ASH geantwoord: “No chance”. In 2006 zegt een woordvoerder van diezelfde partij dat het rookverbod zoals dat is ingevoerd een “historisch stuk wetgeving” is.

Hoe kan een dergelijke ingrijpende verandering in zo korte tijd tot stand worden gebracht? Wat zijn de trucs die de anti-rokers hebben uitgehaald om de politiek en de bevolking er van te overtuigen dat een dergelijke sociale verandering onvermijdelijk is?

In de Engelse krant The Guardian geeft de directeur van ASH, Deborah Arnott, vandaag in een arrogant artikel schaamteloos inzicht in hun wereld van manipulatie en tweedracht zaaien: “Our campaign was often lucky, and our opponents often foolish.” Het doel heiligt, zoals gewoonlijk, de middelen. Het is een heilige oorlog tegen tabak.

First, frame the argument. For years, action on smoking in public places was mired in discussion about the claimed “freedom” and “rights” of smokers, and the need for “voluntary” shifts towards compromise solutions, particularly in pubs, restaurants and clubs. We changed the terms of the debate to health and safety at work. We argued that secondhand smoke is a killer – making a smoke-free workplace a right for everyone, and that there is no “compromise” solution that does not leave pub workers exposed to more risk than others – making attempts to find a policy short of comprehensive smoke-free legislation a failure.

Swarm effect

We created a coalition around our key messages. A smoke-free steering group was set up involving major health and medical organisations in alliance with the Trades Union Congress, individual politicians, local government officers and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. They ran their own effective campaigns, but remained committed to an agreed strategy originally drafted by Ash. Networks of campaigners can be provided with key resources and a sense of direction without ever being told what to do. It’s called the “swarm effect”.

The next step is to split the opposition. In every country where smoke-free legislation has been mooted, the most vocal opponents are the tobacco trade and the hospitality industry. But the preferences of these allies are subtly different. While both agree that doing nothing would be best, the hospitality trade’s worst nightmare was that communities in the UK would introduce their own local regulations – uniform national legislation would be preferable. But the tobacco barons preferred local action to national law every time, because they could fight a long, delaying action. The spectre of local action, therefore, was always likely to split opponents apart.

Before the last general election, Labour started a public consultation on the contents of its manifesto. Initially, the party leadership had no intention of including radical action on smoking, and refused to meet public health lobbyists without the Tobacco Manufacturers Association in attendance. The resulting meeting was fairly unpleasant, but the party did jump with relief at the suggestion that it should “compromise” by considering giving local councils powers to go smoke-free.

We then went to the hospitality trade reporting this prospect until some of the larger players started publicly supporting national legislation. Meanwhile, Liverpool and London councils added credibility to the threat by promoting their own bills in the House of Lords.

It is crucial to exploit opportunities that come your way. Our campaign was often lucky, and our opponents often foolish. We were blessed by the brave decision of the government of the Irish Republic to adopt its own smoke-free legislation, proving that it could work. Scotland’s first minister, Jack McConnell, changed his mind after talking to Irish politicians and backed comprehensive legislation in the Scottish parliament.

England and Wales were not so lucky. The then secretary of state for health, John Reid (an ex-smoker), publicly stated that banning smoking in public places was not on his agenda. “Show us the votes,” said his political adviser, when we tried to convince him of the public health arguments. But Reid overreached himself. His description of smoking as a “working-class pleasure” created a media firestorm that we could exploit, pushing him further than he wanted to go on the road to comprehensive legislation. His compromise on the issue – exempting non-food pubs and clubs from smoke-free legislation – made its way into the manifesto and simply made his long-term position worse.

After the 2005 election, Reid became the defence secretary but remained wedded to his compromise and fought for it in the cabinet. Every part of the subsequent ministerial row became public knowledge – provoked, in part, by Ash’s well-informed political briefings. These divisions helped the coalition persuade the Conservatives to allow a free vote on the issue, a vital step to forcing the government down the same path.

Political champions are essential. Our coalition owes a sincere gratitude to numerous politicians and officials. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, risked his own position to argue the case for comprehensive smoke-free legislation. Kevin Barron MP, chair of the health select committee, guided committee members to a unanimous report from his committee on the issue, and persuaded them to back an all-party amendment (framed by our coalition) that forced the government to concede a free vote. John Grogan MP, chair of the all-party beer group, aligned sulking pub trade leaders with the health lobby to demand comprehensive legislation without exemptions for clubs. Lord (Richard) Faulkner helped ensure that opinion in the House of Lords was as favourable to us as in the Commons.

Confidence trick

It is essential that campaigners create the impression of inevitable success. Campaigning of this kind is literally a confidence trick: the appearance of confidence both creates confidence and demoralises the opposition. The week before the free vote we made sure the government got the message that we “knew” we were going to win and it would be better for them to be on the winning side. But it was only five minutes before the vote that the political adviser to the health secretary phoned us to let us know Patricia Hewitt was supporting our position, and we only found out after the vote that the prime minister and Gordon Brown had followed her through the lobby.

The struggle for smoke-free legislation went from nowhere to victory in a short time. It routed powerful opponents and exposed many of them as incompetent or insubstantial. It shifted public opinion from indifference to overwhelming support. Some ideas reach a point at which their time has come. But some will also often need a vigorous campaign before politicians notice the obvious.

· Deborah Arnott is the director of Action on Smoking and Health. Ian Willmore is public affairs manager of Ash.

The Guardian

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