Public health ‘under assault’ by free-market idealogues
Author: Louise Prime
The organisation behind “a year of assaults on public health initiatives” that is part-funded by the tobacco industry has direct or indirect financial connections with at least 25 currently serving Conservative members of Parliament, an investigation* by The BMJ has revealed. It warned that the battle for control of the Conservative party could be even more damaging to the UK’s public health than Brexit, as politicians with links to the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) “seem to be progressing ever closer to power”.
In his special report for The BMJ this morning, Jonathan Gornall revealed that although the IEA is “secretive about its funding sources”, it is part-funded by British American Tobacco and has also in the past accepted funding from the gambling, alcohol, sugar, and soft drink industries. And he pointed out that among the 25 Conservative MP with IEA connections are several leadership candidates – including Dominic Raab, David Davis and Owen Paterson.
He added that Neil Record, chair of the IEA’s board of trustees since 2015, and fellow IEA trustee since July 2005, Sir Michael Hintze, have between them given a total of £166,000 in cash or hospitality to 30 MPs and £4.3m to the Conservative party since 2002. And from 2010 to 2017, prior to his appointment as health secretary, Matt Hancock accepted £32,000 in funding from Neil Record.
Mr Gormall reported deep concern among public health experts over the possibility that a new Conservative party leadership close to the IEA’s free-market anti-regulation ideology could threaten policies designed to tackle childhood obesity such as calorie labelling and restrictions on junk food advertising. He wrote: “The institute has a longstanding commitment to dismissing public health initiatives as ‘nanny state’ interventions. Its recent research publications have challenged the childhood obesity strategy, dismissed ‘sin taxes’ as regressive, and ridiculed the link between fast food outlets and obesity. In the past year alone it has issued more than a dozen statements criticising everything from alcohol controls to sugar taxes as ‘pointless’, ‘absurd’, and ‘draconian’.
“All of this might not be quite so worrying were it not for two facts: the IEA is or has been funded by some of the very industries that stand to gain commercially from its attacks on public health initiatives, and it is connected – ideologically, financially, or both – to no fewer than 25 serving Conservative MPs, including several candidates for [prime minister Theresa] May’s job.”
He pointed out that an IEA spokesperson had declined to confirm that the organisation was receiving money from British American Tobacco or from any other company or industry body producing food, soft drinks, alcohol, or tobacco products, and that they told the BMJ: “It is a matter for individual donors whether they wish their donation to be public or private.” They added that funders were not allowed to influence the conclusions of IEA analysis either across its programme, within a single publication or in communications about it, and said the IEA’s “strict rules to protect our academic independence” include rigorous peer review and clear guidance to potential donors.
Nevertheless, Gornall concluded: “Uncertainty over the Conservative Party’s future direction will continue for some time. In the meantime, no progress is likely on any public health initiatives in the works, such as plans to introduce calorie labelling on food consumed outside the home or further restrictions on advertising to reduce children’s exposure to products high in salt, fat, and sugar.
“Few in public health will be happy at the prospect of the Conservatives adopting a leader wedded to the IEA’s anti-‘nanny state’, free market ideology, but the signs are not good… A round-up of contenders published by the New Statesman listed no fewer than seven serious candidates for the job who had demonstrated various degrees of involvement with IEA or empathy with its views. They included Davis, Raab, Truss, Hancock, and Lee.”
*Gornall J. Big tobacco, the new politics, and the threat to public health. BMJ 2019; 365: l2164. doi:10.1136/bmj.l2164 (Published 15 May 2019).