It’s World No Tobacco Day, focusing this year on the need to expose and counter the tobacco industry’s “brazen and increasingly aggressive attempts to undermine global tobacco control efforts”.
To acknowledge this, the World Health Organisation is celebrating some of the people who’ve made outstanding contributions to tobacco control. We’re thrilled that one of these is Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s tireless Director of Tobacco Control, for her work in combating the tobacco industry’s interference in public health.
Together with her colleagues, Jean’s made huge strides over the past two decades. For example, she developed Cancer Research UK’s code of practice on tobacco industry funding, stopping scientists who get money from these companies from receiving research funding from us.
She was also instrumental in our campaigning for the tobacco advertising ban in the 1990s, smoke-free legislation in the 2000s, and the recent ban on vending machines and shop displays.
Jean also set up and still runs the Cancer Research UK Tobacco Advisory Group, enabling us to support scientific research into tobacco control. And her reach spreads much further than the UK – together with the American Cancer Society, she set up the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Awards and the Africa Tobacco Control Regional Initiative. She also helped to establish the EU Smokefree Partnership, pushing for strong tobacco policies within Europe.
We spoke to Jean to find out more about what she’s achieved over the years, what motivates her, and why tobacco control is such a vital part of our efforts to beat cancer.
Let’s go right back – when did you first start working in tobacco control?
About 20 years ago Cancer Research UK’s predecessor The Cancer Research Campaign had an education research committee that used to fund some tobacco work, and we gradually got involved in policy work through ASH and at the European level.
Altogether I’ve worked here for 23 years. I’m not sure I thought I’d be staying that long when I started, but my job has changed and got more and more interesting so it’s been a great journey.
What drives you to do tobacco control work? There may be easier or smaller targets, so what gets you out of bed in the morning?
I think people get absolutely immersed in the issues around tobacco and tobacco control. Before it was my main focus of work I used to think people were a bit obsessive, but as you get more and more into it, it takes you over.
It’s not just a health problem that is entirely preventable and is killing millions of people in very horrible ways, especially in those parts of the world where there isn’t good treatment, but there’s the David and Goliath thing. There’s this opposing force that’s trying to keep people addicted to something that’s going to kill them, just to make money.
You do become a bit adversarial, definitely. It makes you feel that you’ve got to stand up for children, for the next generation – we don’t want them to get hooked – so it gets very absorbing.
Tell me about some of the things you’ve done over the years working for Cancer Research UK in tobacco control?
We’ve had campaigns and expert meetings, we’ve funded different bits of independent research, and we’ve had to really pull out all the stops to try and get studies published in time so that we could use them in talking to government at critical times in parliamentary debates.
We’ve supported groups and independent studies that have been amazing in what they’ve produced and shown, and we’ve set up the Smoke-free Partnership in Europe, the Tobacco Advisory Group. The charity has had a lot of foresight in recognising that we need to have dedicated funding for showing the evidence that we need, and seeing where there are gaps and seeking to fill them, so we can present a very strong case on what policies are needed to cut smoking rates.
What are you most proud of, looking back at this point?
Probably the Framework Convention on Tobacco control, and the fact that we were able to contribute to that, to support people who were working for that around the world before there was any significant funding in international tobacco control.
Together with the American Cancer Society we were supporting small grants so that people could get things off the ground in parts of the world where there was very little control on tobacco companies. Seeing this public health treaty, the Framework Convention, come together was incredible – if we could implement that fully we could knock the tobacco epidemic on the head. We could literally be saving millions of lives. That’s amazing.
Then as well, there’s the work I’ve been describing about the charity opposing the tobacco industry, and I think that‘s great. It’s a huge honour that the WHO has recognised that work.
If it’s possible to pick one, what’s the most scandalous thing that you have seen the tobacco industry do?
There are so many, such as denying the harmfulness and denying the addiction, when their own documents show that they were actually trying to enhance the addictiveness of tobacco.
I’ll give you a story that illustrates it all that a colleague in Nigeria told us. There were parties sponsored by a tobacco company, targeted at young people, where not only were you given a cigarette when you went in the door but you were told to light it up.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the equivalent of giving someone a loaded syringe, I just think it’s outrageous. And these are the sorts of things that tobacco companies are doing around the world that we need to stop.
Have you ever smoked?
I did! I was lucky that I started later than most people do – I was probably about 19 or so – and I managed to stop within about five years. There was a group of us at college together and we all stopped.
I fell again when I was living abroad. I was on a long journey with people who were smoking, and I just took a couple of puffs because it was a boring journey and I couldn’t believe it – I was back on ten or 20 a day for a few months. That was a long time ago now, and happily I’ve been free from cigarettes since then.
Working for a cancer charity, we see all the time the devastation that smoking causes – do you have any personal experience of the kind of damage that smoking causes to people and to families?
I know people who’ve died from lung cancer as smokers, people with respiratory illness as a result of smoking and I have a close friend who I think is in denial about a condition that she has which is very debilitating, but was definitely (in my view) caused by her smoking.
I think it’s all around us and I’m always amazed that the tobacco industry spokespeople can be so flippant about that, because I think most people hearing them will know somebody who’s been touched by it.
One of the injustices that we need to try and address is around the families of smokers who die. – Because there’s this mistaken idea that smokers brought it on themselves, then people don’t express the outrage that we should be expressing towards the tobacco industry. It’s not a question of bringing it on yourself – most smokers start as children, it’s highly addictive and they are marketed to, so people should get over that idea. I’d love us to have a sense of outrage about all this suffering that’s being caused.
Historically it’s crazy, and I believe that in a couple of generations from now people will look back and wonder what on earth was going on. People do say it should be banned, but it’s not practical as there are so many people still addicted in this country. And also you don’t want to make it more glamorous than some young people find it already.
We have a pretty good idea about how we could get the smoking rates down so that smoking becomes something that is so rare that we are virtually tobacco-free, and that’s what we want to aim for. For a start, we’ve got one in five adults smoking but two-thirds of those want to stop, so if we can find better ways to help them stop and prevent young people starting – which we’re trying to do by getting cigarettes out of sight and into plain packs – all of these things together will drive the smoking rates down.
Some people ask why Cancer Research UK is campaigning so hard on tobacco – why should we be doing this campaigning work?
Our aim is to beat cancer and over a quarter of all cancer deaths are caused by tobacco. So we could wipe out so much of the cancer toll simply by getting the smoking rates down, preventing young people from starting and helping smokers to quit.
Absolutely we need to be looking for new treatments for cancer, but at the same time if we can prevent so many thousands of cancers and deaths, then that has to be part of what we do to beat cancer.
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