WIRRAL Council is set to sign a binding declaration committing itself to resist “the vested interests of the tobacco industry” - while at the same time administering a pension fund investsing tens of millions in global tobacco giants.
A meeting this week saw councillors consider a proposal to sign the local government “Declaration on Tobacco Control.”
This commits councils to a raft of anti-smoking measures, including raising the profile of the harm caused by cigarettes.
The declaration also carries a clause which says the authority will: “Protect our tobacco control work from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry by not accepting any partnerships, payments, gifts and services, monetary or in kind or research funding offered by the tobacco industry to officials or employees.”
Wirral is the administering authority for the £5bn Merseyside Pension Fund, which has more than £80m invested in cigarette manufacturing companies, including Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco.
Pressure has been applied for the cash to be withdrawn – one leading anti-smoking group has branded it “completely inappropriate.”
Since last April, the council has held responsibility for public health, making pension fund links to tobacco stocks seem even more surprising.
But Fiona Johnstone, Wirral’s director of public health, said today: “The link between reduced life expectancy and the effects of tobacco use are clear.
“Tobacco use is a major cause of debilitating long-term health conditions and health inequality.
“Agreement will ultimately be down to members, but we see our commitment to this declaration as the next step in the council’s continued attempts to address all aspects of tobacco control.
“This approach will include continued discussions with Merseyside Pension Fund about their investment portfolio."
Peter Wallach, head of the Merseyside Pension Fund, said: “The local authority has separate, statutory responsibilities for both public health and pensions, and both operate within their own legal frameworks.
“The issue remains under active consideration by the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, which is a collaboration of 55 local authority pension funds around the country.
“This is an issue for pension funds up and down the country, not just Merseyside."
He said the forum has held meetings with tobacco industry executives and "continues to explore ways to reflect the concerns of the directors of public health in the activities of the forum and its members.”
Tobacco Free Futures - a group financed by public health cash to cut smoking – sent a letter in 2013 to the five Merseyside authorities which contribute to the fund asking them to reconsider.
A spokeswoman said at the time: “It is completely inappropriate that local authority pension funds are associated with tobacco stocks and an industry that ultimately kills half of all its long-term users."