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CRUK – Plain packs collateral damage?

By Guest
August 26th, 2013 at 10:30 am | 15 Comments | Posted in Charities

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

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