As ASH Scotland’s 40th anniversary year draws to a close, we asked former Chief Executive Alison Hillhouse (pictured above in 1985) to reflect on her memories from 20 years in the organisation. Alison joined in 1975 and became head of ASH Scotland in 1984. She retired in 1995.
How did you get the job?
I wanted to something that was to do with people and I was also very interested in politics and policy. I had absolutely no health background but I saw this advert in the paper.
It said ‘suit graduate mum’, which you can’t put in a job advert these days. The one question I do remember being asked at interview was if I was scared of the media. I said I didn’t think so as I had never talked to a journalist up to that point. So that was it. Very informal, and the next day they phoned me up and I started probably the next week.
How big was ASH Scotland then?
It started with just Dr Eileen Crofton (director) and Jean Burgoyne on the balcony in the library of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, with one filing cabinet, a phone and one typewriter, with Eileen doing two or three sessions a week.
In the two years before I started she had already begun a whole load of things. I joined as she was in the middle of a huge survey of smoking in the health service in Scotland. That meant getting the Community Medicine Specialists to do a survey in their own health service premises. You can imagine what it said – that people smoked everywhere.
But what it did – and I imagine she planned this – is that it brought in a lot of medical support for what we were doing because the people doing the survey were appalled. This was after the second Royal College of Physicians report on tobacco, when there was absolutely no doubt of the health effects of smoking.
How important were the alliances with others in health promotion?
Over the years, we were successful because Scotland’s such a small country. We worked very closely with Chest Heart & Stroke originally. It was terrific support. They had hardly any money but still managed to give us little dribbles. The British Heart Foundation were so supportive and the BMA were very, very good.
There really was a collaborative spirit, which I think we were working on in the 1970s, but in the 1980s it really worked extremely well. It was a circle – you’ve got your policy, you’ve got to persuade the Government to do something about tobacco. You have to build up a body of public support but you also have to watch your back because you are getting attacked by a powerful industry with a lot of friends, spending a huge amount of money and basically denying health facts.
You had to do your research. We had this terrific alliance so it didn’t really matter who it came from. But very often it was ASH Scotland who did it because we could take the flack!
Were there worries about women and children smoking?
Some men were saying, ‘Why are you worried about smoking dear. It’s only men that die from lung cancer.’ To which the only answer was, ‘Have you seen what’s happening? And have you seen what the industry has done?’
This is a frivolous memory, but going back to the Women’s Health Fair in the early ’80s, there was a row over the cover for the programme because it was, ‘Live like men and die like men.’
It took a long time in this country to get the men to actually admit that it was a problem for women. In other countries some of them are still fighting that battle, to say that this affects everybody.
It was the same with children. They didn’t worry that kids were smoking and turned a blind eye. But we were saying anyone who starts smoking at that age is going to grow up to be an adult smoker and half of them are going to die of it. Even persuading people of it was difficult.
What are some of the milestones from your time at the charity?
On inequalities and statistics, one of the main things was The Scottish Epidemic in 1983. We broke down the statistics by parliamentary constituency, health board and local authority district. It was incredibly powerful and the number of MPs that stood up in Parliament and said X number of patients in my constituency died of smoking last year was terrific and a great weapon in changing public opinion and informed opinion.
The other thing that had a huge effect, and it was something we didn’t invent, was the Skoal Bandits campaign. This was when we discovered that the Government were about to pay a really filthy American company in East Kilbride to make oral tobacco aimed at children.
This happened just as Eileen Crofton retired and I had taken over from her. A few weeks after, she popped into the office, so I asked her, ‘what are we going to do about this?’ She came in and phoned all the dentists in all the health boards and, of course, they were furious! So they started lobbying – it really was huge.
That had a big effect on real public opinion and I will never forget the mums of Ballingry in Fife saying, ‘You cannot do this to our kids!’. I remember going to London with them and the MP at the time, who was Gordon Brown (who was super about this), and going lobbying with all the dentists.
It’s all been forgotten about now because it never happened as we managed to ban the stuff. It ended up being the biggest success we ever had in my day.
What else stands out in the memory?
We then started on the issue of sales to children. We did a survey where we stood outside shops and we carefully selected children to go in to buy cigarettes. They would then have to hand them over straight away and we would write all the information down.
I remember the trouble I got into from the Chief Constable of Grampian, who came from the Hebrides. He rang me up and said I was inciting honest retailers to break the law by sending kids into shops. He was in a rage, saying, ‘You cannot do this. This is inciting people to break the law!’. So that also had a big effect!