A publicly funded University of Bath research group has created a website to attack the opponents of tobacco control. The website, TobaccoTactics.org, was recently established by the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG). Professor Anna Gilmore, who leads the TCRG, said that the website was there to “help the public monitor the [tobacco] industry, its allies or others promoting a pro-tobacco agenda”. This website parades the University of Bath’s logo on several pages, and states its creation is financially assisted by Cancer Research UK and Smoke-Free South West.
TobaccoTactics.org characterizes an infantile view of the debate, where you are either “pro-smoking” or “anti-smoking”. However, given the debate is about controlling the use and marketing of cigarettes and smoking through legislation, as opposed to just being about the activity itself, this false dichotomy obscures a valid view from discussion. There is a great and yawning chasm between disagreeing with an activity and seeking its ban. You can believe people shouldn’t waste their money on cigarettes, but leave the packaging to the manufacturer. You can believe that people shouldn’t smoke, but also believe that it is their right to choose whether they smoke. As such, TabaccoTactics.org labels many people as engaging in “pro-smoking activities” for simply expressing support for the repeal of the smoking ban, rejecting plain packaging, and so on. This exhibition of a false dichotomy also reaches into other areas of public policy that TobaccoTactics.org notes. For example, the Progressive Vision think-tank are smeared as “climate sceptic” for nothing more than describing a European Union measure about carbon dioxide emission limits placed on cars as “over-prescriptive legislation”. This opinion’s relevance to the debate on smoking is never explained.
In order to ward off libel accusations, the website hosts the following disclaimer:
None of the authors, contributors, sponsors, administrators, sysops, or anyone else connected with TobaccoTactics.org or the University of Bath will be responsible for the appearance of any material considered defamatory, offensive, inaccurate, unlawful or misleading, nor will they be responsible for your use of the information contained in these web pages, or the pages TobaccoTactics links to.
However, disclaimers discover who precisely is responsible for publication, whether it be the author, the editor or the owner or proprietor, which defamation cases must identify. Disclaimers cannot completely abdicate responsibility for the website’s content, particularly when the managing editors control the content.
Whilst the website attempts to renounce responsibility over inaccuracies on their pages, many are glaring. ‘Dick Puddlecote’ blogs under that pseudonym, taken from a medieval wool merchant and jewel thief, and is listed on TobaccoTactics.org as a “libertarian pro-tobacco blogger”. Stupidly, the author of his article notes that: “Puddlecote says he runs his own transport business, yet there is no ‘Puddlecote’ listed as a Director at Companies House.” Furthermore, the article on him also claims that he called Deborah Arnott, CEO of Action for Smoking and Health (ASH), an offensive name and said she is “paid for out of your taxes”. However, ‘Dick Puddlecote’ said no such thing; he only quoted Tim Worstall, an economics blogger, as saying it.
The University of Bath’s TCRG is part of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, which has a similar research aim and outlook. Both of these groups seek to research and evaluate tobacco policies, corporate policy influence, harm reduction and media coverage of such policies. The UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies openly states that it is not a lobbying group, though it recognises close links with other advocacy organisations. As a project of the TCRG, the TobaccoTactics.org website is either using funds hypothecated for research in tobacco control or it is not. If it is, then this is money and resources provided by various research councils, which are usually publicly funded, and embodies the use of research money for political attacks. If it is not, then the website is carrying the logo of the University of Bath and the name of the TCRG for no reason other than the echo of credibility they confer. Given that Smoke-Free South West is a surrogate entity of the National Health Service, taxpayers are inadvertently funding a website that, under the guise of increasing public knowledge of the tobacco industry, engages in political attacks on writers and organisations.
The managing editors of TobaccoTactics.org are Eveline Lubbers and Andrew Rowell. Ms Lubbers authored a book in 2002, entitled “Battling Big Business: Countering Greenwash, Infiltration and other forms of Corporate Bullying”. This book had multiple contributors, including well-known writers such as Naomi Klein, the author of “No Logos”; George Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian, and Andrew Rowell. The website itself is registered by Strichling Res Publica, a company which shares email addresses with Buro Jansen & Janssen, a Dutch private detective agency founded by Ms Lubbers in Amsterdam in 1984. Buro Jansen & Janssen, named after the bumbling detectives from Tintin, describes its activities as “counter-intelligence and digging as a hobby”. It is unknown how much TCRG paid Ms Lubbers and Mr Rowell for writing articles on people who are against further restrictions on the smoking of tobacco.
TobaccoTactics.org establishes a new and unstable spark in the smoking debate. The University of Bath must be a sanctuary for thorough research and academic enrichment; not a pulpit from which professors and their orbiting activists can smoke out their political opponents. Knowing the puerile nature of these attacks, and their origin in taxpayer’s funds, this website could cause noticeable damage to the university’s reputation if its logos and name are not excised from the site’s pages. This is a completely unjustifiable use of research grants and taxed income.