News analysis: Peace breaks out at obesity charity

Tania Mason

How a bitter dispute over policy took the National Obesity Forum to the brink - and back.

A week ago, it looked as though war had been declared at the National Obesity Forum after its founder and president, Dr Ian Campbell, talked to a Sunday newspaper about the reasons for his resignation.

The charity had "lost direction", he told The Observer, and was too wedded to its drug company sponsors.

He also revealed that the forum had threatened him with an injunction and a claim for damages if he continued to make "disparaging or derogatory statements" about it.

Last Monday, the forum's chairman, Dr Colin Waine, told Third Sector the charity couldn't maintain its "dignified silence" any longer. He alleged there were other reasons for Campbell's departure - namely, that he had been in a relationship with the charity's acting chief executive and had concealed this from the trustees when she landed the job last April.

Campbell rejected this as "an utter lie", vehemently insisting that the board knew about his relationship with Felicity Porritt before she joined.

Porritt was also angry at any implication that she wasn't appointed on merit, which she was.

At this point, the conflict appeared about to erupt into open combat, with all sides talking about lawyers and tooling up for a showdown.

Cooling tempers

Then, however, tempers cooled as the parties considered the damage that a protracted public dispute would do to the obesity cause. Immediately after Waine's comments appeared in Third Sector, the NOF backed down, saying it couldn't be sure whether the trustees had known about the relationship (see News, page 3) and couldn't stand by the allegations.

What seems pretty certain now is that the then chair, Dr David Haslam, had been told. Whether this had percolated down to the rest of the board is less clear.

Porritt left the charity at the end of November and Campbell, still her partner, quit in December. Porritt, who is now seeking work, is bound by a confidentiality agreement, a condition of her redundancy, to say nothing about the circumstances of her departure.

Haslam won't explain either. What he will say is this: "The organisation would like to make it clear that the primary cause of Dr Campbell's departure was a difference of opinion over the direction of the charity."

The difference arose because Campbell supported Porritt's vision that the NOF should begin to focus its efforts on obesity prevention as well as treatment, but the rest of the trustees did not. About 95 per cent of the forum's income is from drug companies - and this, Porritt felt, compromised its independence. She advocated broadening its funding base in order to boost its credibility in policy development, and Campbell agreed.

"I didn't want to be in charge of an organisation that was in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies," Porritt says. "When I was at the Consumers' Association, I saw how pharmaceutical companies are so effective at funding organisations as a front for whatever area they want to target.

"The NOF has been hugely successful in publicising obesity, but it's not a player in the field of helping government develop policy. I felt we needed to move into that."

But Haslam is convinced that the best course for the NOF is to work solely on treatment.

"There are already so many obese people in this country that there will inevitably be an epidemic of diabetes," he says. "Even if prevention is 100 per cent successful, and if no more people in this country ever become obese, we will still have an epidemic. That is why we must prioritise treatment."

Focus on prevention

"We think there are enough people who focus on prevention - the Government, the Association for the Study of Obesity, the health charities, the Medical Research Council, Jamie Oliver," Haslam adds. "The unique selling point of the NOF is treatment."

Porritt, however, cannot see why the charity can't pursue both. She even claims that the NOF's three major pharmaceutical company sponsors - Sanofi-Aventis, Abbott Laboratories and Roche - supported her approach.

But Porritt could not pursue her vision without a mandate from the board, even with the backing of the charity's founder, so they both went. Campbell is bound to continue their agenda, though - he appears so well regarded he should have no problem.

Haslam says he and Campbell are on cordial terms. "We both agree that the prevention and treatment of obesity are equally important and complementary," he says. "He will pursue one, and we will pursue the other."

- See Editorial, page 22.

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