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No smoke without firing up a good story

This blog thrives on “bad” news associated with smoking. Take, for example, reports that some pregnant women claiming benefits are swapping their free NHS fruit & veg vouchers for cigarettes.

This claim appears to have come out of the findings of the Department of Health’s recently-published Next Steps for Healthy Start, officially described as “the Government’s response to a UK-wide public consultation on Healthy Start”.

Healthy Start is a government scheme that issues free food-vouchers to some pregnant women and mothers claiming benefits. The vouchers – each worth £3.10 a week – must be exchanged  for milk, infant formula milk, fresh fruit or vegetables.

In the consultation, people were asked if they knew of any occasions when a retailer had accepted Healthy Start vouchers for products that were not included in the scheme.

Some 1,689 people – that’s 71 percent of those surveyed– said they hadn’t. Against this, 96 respondents (four percent) ticked the box for “yes, many occasions”. A further nine percent (217) said “yes, some occasions”; eight percent (199) said “yes, not many occasions”; and seven percent (168) just didn’t answer the question.

However, according to the report: “Many of those who said that they were aware of retailers accepting Healthy Start vouchers for products that are not part of the scheme said that their comments were anecdotal and that they had not personally witnessed this happening…There was no consensus on what products were being purchased wrongly with vouchers. Alcohol and cigarettes were mentioned but other items such as nappies, baby products, general groceries, bread, eggs and meat were quoted”.

Focusing on  fags (and booze) makes for a much more enticing story than: “Claimant mums-to-be ‘swap NHS fruit & veg vouchers for all sorts of things…’.” However, without more information, the story here is simply: (1) that choosing to obtain cigarettes rather than Healthy Start items would be a bad choice – and a flouting of the scheme rules; but (2) exactly how often that particular choice is made – and thus the extent of the problem – is unknown.

As bad smoking news goes, it could be much worse!