WORKSHOP: Case Study - Lung foundation stirs up drugs debate

SIMON ELLERY

tabular

Background In the summer of 2001, a government-led debate raged over proposals to take a more lenient legal stance on cannabis as ministers sought to focus on tackling harder drug use such as crack.

The Home Affairs Select Committee was discussing lowering the classification of cannabis from a Class A to a Class B drug and reducing the penalties for possession and dealing. Concerned that the criminalisation issue overshadowed the health hazards of smoking cannabis, the British Lung Foundation wanted to influence the debate.

The foundation's then head of public affairs, Michelle Di Leo, consulted respiratory physicians about the links between smoking cannabis and respiratory health and found that it was an issue that urgently needed greater research.

The British Lung Foundation issued a press release to highlight the health dangers and to call on the Government to provide a public health education campaign if reclassification went ahead. This received widespread media coverage and prompted the Department of Health to offer the charity two grants for research and publicity work into the subject.

Aims: The first of these grants was spent on collating a special report.

The report identified existing scientific and medical research on cannabis smoking and respiratory health and aimed to influence the debate, and educate those engaged in promoting health education to young people.

The report was researched and complied by Julia Heidstra, research manager at the British Lung Foundation, and the introduction and findings were summarised by Di Leo. In July 2002, Di Leo left the foundation and the media campaign was taken over by Sue Knight, the new head of public affairs.

Results: The foundation received widespread media coverage for the campaign.

An initial short press statement about the forthcoming launch of the report was sent out the day before David Blunkett's reclassification announcement in July 2002. This made the headlines and chief executive Dame Helena Shovelton gave many radio interviews.

On 11 November, a press pack outlining the findings was sent to all national and regional press, broadcasters and radio stations. The foundation's press office says its phones didn't stop ringing for days. Coverage included a live discussion on Radio 4's Today and debates on all major radio stations, including stations in Canada and New York. Television coverage included BBC Breakfast, Channel 4 News, Sky News, BBC News 24 and French Public Service Broadcasting. The research also received front-page coverage on most national newspapers.

"The biggest result is that the findings of the report have changed the angle and shifted the terms of the reclassification debate. The Government is now considering the health dangers of cannabis on respiratory health and public awareness on the issue has been raised," says Shovelton.

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