Tuesday, 17 November 2009

TOBACCO AND FORTH

I'm sure Kent County Council's investment strategies have been examined under a fine-tooth comb by other local bloggers, but I've just read an opinion piece in the Kent on Sunday newspaper by Tim Garbutt, local blogger at Sincerity Agency, who raises the issue of Kent County Council being inclined to invest money in U.S.-based tobacco firms. Garbutt claims that £9 million from the KCC's £900 million pension and reserve funds has been invested in "Philip Morris, the home of Marlboro man, plus Japan Tobacco and a cluster of brands such as Camel, Silk Cut and Old Holborn."


What's news to me, however, is Garbutt's additional claims that Kent County Council has also been investing in "not just one booze company, but a whole round of them: Carlsberg, Wetherspoon, Asahai and so on. All the more unusual as there's not a penny for Kent pubs and brewers." Quite right. Then again, nothing much here will be surprising to those of us who noted Stuart Jeffrey's blog posts last year which highlighted similar questionable investments on the part of Kent County Council. I might be wrong, but I'm presupposing that the ball initially got rolling on this tobacco subject courtesy of a Freedom of Information request by Joshua Carroll.

However, I'm not entirely sure whether the figures Garbutt discloses in the KOS newspaper are fully accurate, since I cannot seem to find corroborating info on the Kent County Council's financial publications website. It doesn't help that their PDFs are written in comic sans (oh, the irony). Nonetheless, it's still worthy of note, wouldn't you say? After all, if £9 million of public money really is being invested into cigarette firms, is this really what we want taxpayers cash being spent on?

In his article, Garbutt rightly explores the ethical issues of Kent County Council's investment in tobacco firms by discussing the social cost of smoking, noting that "East Kent has the highest lung cancer rate in South East England and a mortality rate 11 years earlier than the rest of Kent - perhaps partly due to Manston Airport and removal of noise and air monitoring, but also relatively deprived areas and tobacco smoking."

Obviously, I'm anticipating that the Kent County Council's justification for investing in tobacco and booze companies - coupled with investing in public health campaigns to offset the social damage created by binge drinking and smoking - will be that they are representing the contradictory and conflicting wishes and desires of the taxpayer. Therefore, the public purse is inevitably going to be spent in a way which is likely to please some taxpayers more than it will others. Some smokers will probably be nonchalant to the news, possibly even applauding it, whereas non-smokers like myself will probably fail to see how the KCC's decision to invest in creating 'cancer sticks' is in the public's best interest.

What is clear is that (if the figure is accurate) £9 million is a hell of a lot of money, and probably would've been better spent on public services with the taxpayer's health and wellbeing taken into account. Think about how many public toilets we could've kept open for that amount of wonga! I don't discount the right of people to smoke - if I'm honest, I even mildly oppose the smoking ban in pubs - but that doesn't mean I advocate the usage of their taxes by the KCC to actively promote and encourage smoking when all scientific evidence has proven it has a detrimental effect on public health.

How can you clamp down on death rates from lung cancer caused by smoking (or even curb binge drinking), while at the same time you're essentially financially sponsoring an activity which other public services like the NHS and the Kent Police are attempting to admonish? As far as I see it, the KCC's motives for investment in these firms seem very contradictory, somewhat hypocritical and seemingly run counter to the public's benefit.

That's not to say this is always the case, however. Garbutt mentions the fact that KCC provides "full disclosure through FOI and EIR and invests in ethical banks such as Standards Chartered with their innovative work in HIV messaging on cashpoints in Africa and oil-to-renewables firms such as BP." Good on them. It's nice to see that KCC is attempting to make a positive difference where it can; in which case, this whole tobacco issue appears to be an objectionable blot on the KCC's financial track record.

There's probably more to this subject than meets the eye, so I'll be very open to receive further information if you'll care to enlighten me. But for the most part, in my view, investing in tobacco or booze companies while at the same time funding campaigns and initiatives to discourage smoking is a positively schizophrenic act. Maybe we should get KCC sectioned. By doing that, at least we could say we have their best interests at heart, which is possibly more than can be said for us.

2 comments:

  1. I almost took this seriously until I started reading about Manston Airport reducing life expectancy. It's not exactly Heathrow, though it will probably reduce Tim Garbled's life expectancy if he keeps getting so stressed over it day after day...

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  2. I'm not sure that you can legally "invest" pension fund capital into public services. It has to go somewhere that can grow year on year ideally in as varied a portfolio as humanly possible.

    That said I am sure that there are sufficient ethical investment opportunities with good growth and rate of return without products of questionable social value.

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