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CRUK – Plain packs collateral damage?

August 26th, 2013 Posted in Charities by

As a supporter of Cancer Research UK (CRUK) I have found myself faced with a bit of dilemma recently. I am very familiar with the excellent work performed by its many scientists but am unhappy that it has embraced ASH and deeply concerned by what I see as a change in emphasis away from scientific research towards political advocacy. Symptoms of this malaise include a slogan shift from “beating cancer through research” to the worryingly trite “together we will beat cancer”, propaganda on lifestyle links to cancer badly dressed up as science and a tendency to employ increasingly strident spin doctors.

I don’t believe that half of cancers are “caused” by lifestyle factors and even if that were true then I am not convinced that trying to force mass behavioural change is socially acceptable or likely to succeed on a major scale. So despite what the nutritionists would have us believe, in my view funding laboratory research is a lot more important than banning ham from children’s lunches.

In most countries medical research largely government funded but the UK relies heavily on the Wellcome Trust (£700M) and charities who according to AMRC contribute around a third of approximately £3 billion public spend on medical research. CRUK is a major player contributing over £300 Million.

CRUK receives the vast majority of its revenue from donations, so a significant percentage of the UK medical research effort is dependent on its ability to attract public support. That ability has been called into question in recent years. Fund raising has flat lined to the extent that this year CRUK felt obliged to spend £687,000 “refreshing” its brand and an unspecified amount on a TV advertising campaign.

In justifying this revamp CEO Harpal Kumar says:

“We’re showing our age – our brand was created 10 years ago … We’re also looking out of touch at a time when the economy is fragile and the public have more choice than ever before.”

I believe that CRUKs image problem is partly self-inflicted. 10 years ago its message was clear and people knew that they were donating money for scientific research. These days in CRUK’s research directory, listed alongside talented scientists that include Nobel Laureates we find Deborah Arnott of ASH, an anti-tobacco activist who is a stranger to science, research and on occasion objective reality.


CRUK spends the vast bulk of its money on research but lifestyle pseudoscience sensationalised by its spin doctors often makes headlines whereas the excellent work of its laboratory scientists rarely does. This effect influences public perception and unpopular campaigns such as plain packaging for cigarettes may actually damage the CRUK brand.

The contrast in quality between CRUK’s laughable “research” intended to “prove” that the plain packs vanity project is evidence based and the scientific research performed by its laboratories is startling and should be embarrassing.

The plain packs campaign also highlights the extent to which CRUK has allowed activism to dominate its public image. Shortly after the government decision not to adopt the measure the BBC claimed to quote CEO Harpal Kumar as saying:

“The government had a choice: protect children from an addiction that kills 100,000 people in the UK every year or protect tobacco industry profits,”

This statement was subsequently removed from the BBC article presumaHarmal Kapur plain packs supporterbly at the request of someone at CRUK who realised that manipulative language and speculative political accusations are inappropriate from the CEO of a charity. Perhaps what I had presumed was a typo on the Plain Packs campaign website is actually an allusion to Kumar’s political ambitions. Kumar  is of course only thinking of the “the children”. He does a lot of that.

One might hope that a lesson had been learned but the publication of a  poor quality study in BMJ Open that deservedly received a lukewarm reception from virtually everyone apart from public health worshipers led to a somewhat misleading press release from CRUK that was further spun by the mainstream media to suggest that plain packaging has had a measurable impact in Australia. The public was subjected to extraordinary claims by Kate Alley of CRUK courtesy of the BBC:

“When cigarettes aren’t disguised by flashy packaging and carefully crafted branding, smokers see them for what they are – a lethal product which kills half of its long term users.”

“85% of the British public wanted government action to reduce the number of children who smoke.”

Both these statement are disingenuous. The first is extremely unlikely hypothesis and the second is an attempt to divert attention from a lack of public support for a specific measure by introducing a dubious contextually irrelevant statistic to imply that support exists. CRUK should be embarrassed by such slyness but instead diverts donations intended for research to producing spin.

This manipulative technique has been used by CRUK activists in their latest attempt to browbeat the government using yet another YouGov survey in which leading questions are asked and the “right” answers are then spun into policy based evidence. Presenting the results of such surveys as “evidence” for policy is bordering on fanaticism and so far removed from the scientific rigour that is the keystone of CRUK’s core activities that I am sincerely surprised that it is tolerated.

CRUK argues that it is merely continuing a history of advocacy but there is an ethical chasm between advocating informed choice based on hard evidence presented by scientists and authoritarian “denormalisation” campaigns fronted by advocates and PR people.  This increasingly coercive and unscientific approach may appeal to activist supporters but such people are hardly representative of the wider population whose donations are what really fuels cancer research. Historically, the UK public has been lukewarm to heavy handed government interventions and I fervently hope that no amount of rigged YouGov surveys will change that.

I don’t expect CRUK as a cancer charity to be supportive of smoking but I believe its output on the subject should be well researched and objective. It is far from that standard at present. This year’s figures suggest that the advertising is helping fundraising but I can’t help but feel that the money might have been better spent and I also believe that support may depend a little on the probability that most donors are blissfully unaware that their money might be diverted to support aggressive advocacy.

There are hopeful signs that someone has got the message as CRUK advertising at least is now focussed on research but I note that ASH funding was renewed in 2013. Didn’t anyone notice the lack of public support for ASH before rushing to adopting its philosophy and tactics?

By Chris Oakley. Chris’ previous posts on Liberal Vision include: Minimum pricing – policy based evidenceAlcohol is Old News – Minimum Pricing for Digestives is the “Next Logical Step” , Soviet Style Alcohol Suppression Campaign Called for By Public Health Activists , Alcohol Taxation: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Lies, damn lies, statistics &… , The Department of Health is Watching You! , New bounty on smokers helps GPs balance their books, Smoking ban health miracles , Public health idealogues don’t come cheap, Plain packs – This week’s non-story

15 Responses to “CRUK – Plain packs collateral damage?”

  1. Justin Says:

    I work for CRUK on fundraising side and we are getting a lot of people like you are saying that CRUK has turned into a political lobby group. That is not why we were established and not what we do (mostly). It’s just that the work the public gets to see is all the lobbying.

    I’ve seen the Independent article today on our latest plain packaging survey. The headline is the usual over-claim and no one can explain to me why we interviewed 2200 women and then choose to report the results of only 500 or so. I think I can guess why.

    My suggestion is that people donating simply specify that their donation only goes to medical research.

  2. Jonathan Bagley Says:

    I cancelled my monthly donation to CRUK following its support for the ban on smoking in non-residential buildings and secure mental hospitals. What would be funny if it wasn’t tragic is CRUK’s recent support for the MHRA regulation of ecigs, based on its belief, which may or may not be sincere, in the growing pile of junk science produced by what were anti tobacco activists, but which now appear to be anti nicotine (unless sold by a drug company) activists. See this CRUK blog post,

    which attracted 271 comments – mainly very critical. It appears that already hundreds of thousands of UK smokers have switched, either fully or partially to ecigs, so preventing many thousands of future lung cancer cases. As the regulation proposed is effectively a ban on the types of ecigs and liquid strengths now chosen by users, CRUK is bizarrely supporting a measure that will result in more lung cancer.

    Lest anyone think that ASH UK and Deborah Arnott (see the article above) have the interests of ecig users at heart and are genuinely seeking “light touch” regulation, I draw people’s attention to this quote from a series of emails between Jeremy Mean of the MHRA and Deborah Arnott

    (see here)

    Hours after the MHRA announced it would tighten regulation of e-cigarettes, Ms Arnott sent a rallying e-mail to Mr Mean. “To use Churchill’s well-worn phrase, this isn’t the end, it isn’t even the beginning of the end, but it is, definitely, the end of the beginning!”

    It transpires that 150 pages of emails were exchanged between ASH UK and the MHRA, plotting the destruction of the ecig industry.

    I’m surprised at the behaviour of CRUK and its willingness to be sl closely associated with dangerous propaganda organisations like ASH UK.

  3. Chris Says:

    @ Justin

    I completely understand that it may not be what CRUK is supposed to be about but the media image is self-inflicted. Four of CRUK’s last 10 press releases are about tobacco and all 4 are to varying degrees less than objective in their content. There is a reason why the media are running these stories and why a small part of CRUK’s activity has a disproportionate impact on its image.

    I do donate directly to research. CRUK are very flexible in this respect. However,I recognize that doing so assuages my conscience at the expense of someone else whose donation is diverted away from research.

  4. Lynne Says:

    I can’t take CRUK seriously anymore and I switch over whenever their ads appear on TV. I suspect many people do.

    E cigs don’t cause cancer so why is CRUK favouring regulating them out of existence. They have been bombarded with comments on their website from vapers, telling them that making them medicines will force vapers back to smoking. CRUK have just ignored them.

    Yesterdays article in the Independent about CRUK and plain packs was such obvious propaganda. Cigarettes are now hidden behind screens. CRUK should stick to cancer research because ideology won’t cure anyone.

  5. Martyn B Says:

    I stopped donating about a year ago – for much the same reasons as most of the others here. I now give to Macmillan nurses instead. You may be able to donate directly to the medical research part of Cancer Research – but I simply dont trust them anymore. They are obsessed with tinkering with social behaviour rather than focusing on medical research. They just come across as dishonest meddling politicos these days.

    I am beginning to think that they dont actually want to find a cure for cancer – think what it would do for their income streams/jobs. On the other hand, spouting off about what people do gets them loads of media coverage and allows the big wigs in the charity to mingle with the powers that be in Westminster – which I am sure they love.

  6. Carol Says:

    I stop giving to any charity that turns into political activism. First it was the RSPCA and now CRUK and I don’t hesitate to tell them why. It is one thing to discourage smoking in young people, quite another to demonise adult smokers and isolate many older people. The total ban was draconian and unnessary, there was always room for compromise with smoking and non smoking pubs etc. Freedom is very easily lost as we have seen. I have/had cancer and will never give them another penny, their ads are a real turn off too. Since e cigs, overweight people and drinkers are next just maybe we will finally fight to get our freedoms back.

  7. Jax Says:

    I simply don’t believe that CRUK spend that much of their funding on research any more. In one form or another they’ve been going for nearly a century (maybe longer?) and here with are with cancer still one of the biggest killers. A charity which has until now been so heavily supported by the public and which was using its funds appropriately would surely have found a safe, effective cure for at least a few cancers. But have they? Have they heck! It’s notable, for example, that their latest ad campaign cites “success through research” but that none of these successes are in cancer and none have been achieved by CRUK! So what are they saying, then – that because other organisations concerned with other illnesses have been successful, then we should hand over money to one which hasn’t had any success at all?? No thanks. I’d rather give my donations to organisations which have a proven track record!

    Indeed, as Martyn B says, one wonders whether there’s actually an element of vested interest in them never finding any such cure. CRUK, it seems, now exists purely to keep CRUK in existence – which renders it, essentially, a waste of time, money and resources.

  8. Chris Says:


    In all fairness, CRUK employs a lot of very decent honest people who are dedicated to their work on understanding and treating cancer. I don’t believe this based on hearsay but know it to be the case from direct experience. There have been some huge advances in survival prospects in recent years some of which directly derive from CRUK research and many of which benefit from it.

    CRUK claims to that 95% of its spend is on research. We can discount a bit of that because it almost certainly includes money wasted on tobacco control at ASH, Bath and Stirling but we are still looking at over 90% spend on laboratory research with a bit of epidemiology thrown in.

    My point in writing this post is not to attack CRUK in a general sense but to highlight the fact that it’s political activities are overshadowing the good works that it does and not helping its image. The CRUK quotes I provide are typical of the appalling hype and spin that emanates not just from CRUK but from many other NGOs. It seems that we live in an era in which charities seem to feel that the “good causes” they espouse give them license to behave as they please without the moral or ethical constraints that they would impose on others.

    I would never voluntarily donate to the tobacco control junk CRUK funds and I question the integrity of any organization that so readily supports poisonous Marxist ideologues but there is much more to CRUK than the junk science and awful sound bites that keep making the headlines.

  9. Junican Says:

    Somewhat belatedly – as I understand it, CRUK has a separate gang of anti-tobacco activists, masquerading as CRUK. How that came to be, I have no idea, nor do I have any idea how that gang is funded. It seems almost as if a certain dominant clique is using the CRUK name to gain respectability. Much the same applies to the BHF etc.
    Nothing will change until our Members of Parliament get wise and stop the junk.

  10. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    My response to the comments is to point out that the Libertarian campaign to end the smoking ban has totally failed under a government that could have been sympathetic because public opinion overwhelmingly favours it. And crucially there is also a lot of support amongst smokers as it helps them give up.
    On the issue of plain packaging, if it is true that the packaging does not make much difference in influencing people to buy cigarettes, then why do the tobacco companies spend so much money on it in the first place? Clearly they must think it makes a difference. That they are lobbying against it is a good indicator that they think the policy might work in reducing cigarette consumption, and if they are right that would definitely make it a good policy.

  11. Chris Says:

    Would you apply the same arguments for plain packaging to other products? Alcohol and confectionery seem obvious candidates and the manufacturers of those products spend a lot more than the tobacco companies.

  12. Sara Scarlett Says:

    “My response to the comments is to point out that the Libertarian campaign to end the smoking ban has totally failed under a government that could have been sympathetic because public opinion overwhelmingly favours it.” < this is what is known as tyranny of the majority. A.k.a. the antithesis of Liberalism.

  13. Chris Says:

    It is actually more illiberal than tyranny of the majority Sara. Geoffrey has a point in that many people favour restrictions as to where people are allowed to smoke, but I am convinced that only a very small minority fully support the legislation as it stands. I passionately believe that the majority of people in the UK instinctively oppose such authoritarianism and many are uncomfortable with the implications of ideas such as plain packaging because of the Orwellian overtones. That is why there is so little genuine public support for that particular proposal and why I think CRUK risks its credibility by campaigning so stridently in favour of it.

  14. Lynne Says:

    Perhaps non smokers are in favour of the smoking ban as it stands. I’m pretty sure though they would not have been against smoking or non smoking pubs etc…Only a small minority of anti smokers wanted a complete ban and unfortunately that’s what we ended up with. These are the same people who are pushing for plain packs with graphic health pictures on them. Targeting tobacco companies is one thing but targeting smokers who are well aware that smoking is bad for them, is tantamount to persecution. We are after all talking about law abiding citizens doing nothing illegal.

  15. A Liberal Says:

    Finally, the government is going to mandate plain packaging. So here’s a message to all the tobacco lobbyists still lurking at the so-called “Liberal Vision” website: up your hole with a big jam roll.