FOI: SmokeFree South West

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On 14 February 2011, SmokeFree South West,1 the regional anti-smoking organisation for the South-West of England, launched a “Wise-Up to Roll-Ups” campaign targeting the 33% of smokers in the region who smoked hand rolling tobacco (HRT), the highest rate in the country. The TV and billboard advertising campaign highlighted the health risks associated with HRT and attacked the mistaken belief that smoking HRT is safer than normal cigarettes.

Bristol, where SmokeFree South West were based,2 is also the home of Imperial Tobacco (later Imperial Brands), the makers of Golden Virginia, by far the largest selling HRT brand in the UK at the time. The tobacco company engaged its PR company Bell Pottinger, to ask for the research behind the campaign. This is an example of how Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests are used to counter health campaigns.

Countering the Campaign ‘Wise-Up to Roll-Ups and Quit’

Imperial’s PR Company Asks for Data

On the afternoon of the launch of Wise-Up to Roll-Ups, SmokeFree South West received an email from Imperial’s PR company Bell Pottinger asking for details of the research used to backed up the campaign.3 Bell Pottinger’s David Petrie contacted the anti-smoking organisation every week for a month.45

On 14 March, Petrie emailed:

Further to our earlier conversation, I was looking to get hold of the research Smokefree South West conducted into hand rolled tobacco and the attitudes of its users. The research is being used as the basis for the television advertising campaign that Smokefree South West is running in the south west of England relating to smoking hand-rolled tobacco.6

Big Brother Watch Use FOI to Try to Get the Data

The very next day, on 15 March, Smoke Free South West received an email from Daniel Hamilton who was then working at Big Brother Watch, a project of the The TaxPayers Alliance, a right wing think tank and lobbying group that used to be involved in pro-tobacco activities. It was a Freedom of Information request for exactly the same information Bell Pottinger had been asking for:

Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act I would like to request details relating to the evidence you used for your ‘Wise-Up to Roll-Ups’ campaign. In particular, I would like to request the following information:

  1. The titles of the published papers that were used to substantiate the campaign.

  2. A full copy – including analytic data tables and weighting data – of the qualitative research that was used by Smokefree South West as evidence base for the campaign.”7

Non Disclosure and Hidden Connections

So why had Big Brother Watch got involved? The Independent newspaper, which investigated the matter, reported how “Neither Bell Pottinger nor Big Brother Watch declared to Smoke Free South West that they had held discussions with one another or with Bristol-based Imperial Tobacco.”

Daniel Hamilton refused to confirm or deny to the newspaper that his organisation had been in contact with Bell Pottinger or Imperial Tobacco over the FOI request to Smoke Free South West. “We don’t work on behalf of other groups. We only work on behalf of ourselves… We’ve got no formal links with anyone in the tobacco industry,” he maintained.

In an article capped “Smoke and mirrors: how the tobacco industry hides behind lobbyists – PR firms and lawyers campaign without revealing clients’ identity”, The Independent revealed a hidden connection. It had “established that Alex Deane, a former chief-of-staff to David Cameron, who worked at Bell Pottinger, and who was a founder director at Big Brother Watch had “played a key role in attempts to use the freedom of information law.” 8

Not much later, Daniel Hamilton resigned as the CEO from Big Brother and went to work for Bell Pottinger.

Forest and Others Submit FOIs

In January 2102, SmokeFree South West was one of various groups involved in the launch of the Plain Packs Protects Campaign. Soon after, all 14 Primary Care Trusts that fund SmokeFree South West started receiving FOI requests. SmokeFree South West received numerous FOIs itself, including from: 9

In April 2012 the tobacco-industry funded Hands Off Our Packs campaign attacked SmokeFree South West for using “public money to lobby government on plain packaging”. 12

TobaccoTactics Resources

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  1. Smoke-Free South West, website, archived April 2016
  2. SmokeFree South West to close this summer after cuts to funding, ITV West Country news, 5 February 2016
  3. David Petrie, Email to Lorenza Fernandez, 14 February 2011
  4. David Petrie, Email to Lorenza Fernandez, 25 February, 2011
  5. David Petrie, Email to Lorenza Fernandez, 1 March 2011
  6. David Petrie, Email to Lorena Fernandez, 14 March 2011
  7. Daniel Hamilton, Email to Lorena Fernandez, 15 March 2011
  8. Steve Connor, “Smoke and mirrors: how the tobacco industry hides behind lobbyists – PR firms and lawyers campaign without revealing clients’ identity”, The Independent, 3 September 2011, accessed February 2012
  9. Emails to SmokeFree South West, Various Dates
  10. Anti-Anti-Smoking Wiki, website (removed), archived 2 November 2015
  11., Domain Registration for, accessed April 2012
  12. Hands Off Our Packs, Public money used to lobby government on plain packaging, 2 April 2012