Three decades of working in tobacco control is not achieved without notching up a few battle scars along the way.
Our Chair John Griffiths retires from ASH Wales today after more than 30 years of dedicated service. John’s versatility of character has led to him being appointed to every position possible on our board. His commitment, integrity and knowledge meant the trustees could not let him go and in 2012 he was ‘invited’ back from retirement to ‘give the charity just one more year’. Thankfully John chose to stay.
When John first joined the charity he had his work cut out, 30% of the population were smoking including 20% of 15-year-old girls and 16% of 15-year-old boys. The tobacco epidemic was out of control. In 1984, to stem the tide of young people taking up this deadly habit, the infamous “No Smoking Day” was launched on ASH Wednesday. This national campaign was in media terms ‘massive’ and over the years became a day that made every smoker in the country think about their habit. It was brought about by a collection of organisations run through a committee chaired by John for several years.
In tandem the Government, supported by ASH and its third sector partners, took action and banned the sale of all tobacco products to under 16’s….and over the next few years a raft of policies designed to protect children followed.
TV advertising was banned, they stopped smokers from lighting up on planes, health warnings were made bigger and more hard hitting.
But still the tobacco epidemic spread like cancer through our communities, ten years later in 1998 smoking rates among children hit an all time high. 29% of all 15-year-old girls and 21% of all 15-year-old boys were now smoking. The effects of these astronomically high smoking rates would blight the health of the nation for decades.
More needed to be done, we needed more campaigns, a unified approach and government support.
John helped to galvanise this support on an international scale: working for the World Health Organisation Euro on issues around smoke free workplaces training and bringing together like-minded people. Education, health and workplace services have been at the heart of everything that John has done and continues to do.
Eventually, with leadership from Euro and the tobacco control framework, tobacco controls began to be tightened. The tobacco companies finally started to feel the squeeze as prices were hiked, advertising in sport was banned and sponsorship was censored. Bigger warnings, better education and increased controls eventually led to the number of young people smoking starting to fall. In 2006 the number of 15-year-old girls smoking had fallen to 23% and boys down to 12%.
But the most significant change in tobacco control was still to be implemented. The banning of smoking in public enclosed space has been the biggest contributor to tobacco control in a generation. The battle to get the legislation was a fierce one, the tobacco companies fought it tooth and nail claiming it would drive smokers from the pubs into their homes and more children would be exposed to second-hand smoke. But John, ASH Wales and a steady line of tenacious Assembly Members led the charge and in 2005 a welsh cross-party Committee on Smoking in Public Places concluded that ‘there is overwhelming evidence that environmental tobacco smoke is damaging to health and there is no evidence that the introduction of a ban would have an overall negative impact on the economy’.
In April 2007 the ban comes into force – ten years later the ban has led to a step change in the way smokers behave particularly around children. The number of those who smoke in the home has reduced from 80% to 46%, suggesting a massive cultural shift. The number of smokers in Wales has fallen by nearly 100,000. We are indeed a much healthier nation.
As a former teacher John’s passion in tobacco control has always been about educating children. Through John’s work with the Healthy Schools programme he has ensured the harms associated with tobacco use are firmly on the agenda. In the launch of the new Tobacco Control Action Plan for Wales the Public Health Minister, Rebecca Evans, directly referred to the scheme and its contribution to prevention; promising a review of the tobacco criteria within these national quality awards.
There is much still to be done, smoking prevalence for the unemployed stands at over 40%, 33% of people with mental ill health are still smoking and 16% of women smoke throughout their pregnancy. But overall rates are falling especially amongst young people with just 8.5 % of teenagers now smoking. This reduction is something to be proud of.
John will be sorely missed at ASH Wales and we will be forever in his debt for the contributions that he has made and the changes he has supported. We wish him well and hope that he enjoys continuing to follow our work as we continue the fight for a smoke-free Wales.
Suzanne Cass, Chief Executive Officer of ASH Wales
To find out more about what has happened since the smoking ban visit www.ash.wales.