David Collins, cancer ambassador

David Collins, cancer campaigns ambassador

Former police constable David Collins is a volunteer Ambassador for our political campaigns.

We took David and 17 other passionate advocates to Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences this year, to represent our campaign for plain packaging of tobacco.

Here he reflects on his experiences of this important assignment.

More tea Vicar?

Personally, I don’t think I look like Harold Bishop from the TV soap Neighbours. But whenever I attend a Cancer Research UK event as a volunteer Cancer Campaigns Ambassador, there is always someone who thinks I am he.

A similar thing happened again last week in Manchester where, quite to my surprise, I also found myself being addressed as ‘Reverend’ by a senior Labour Party figure. I suspect vanity had led to him venturing out in public ‘sans specks’ where he myopically mistook my white shirt and dark crew neck jumper for a dog collar.

I looked at him over my glasses and informed him that the correct address for a Bishop was ‘My Lord’ but he could call me Bish. He squinted, smiled, took a leaflet and disappeared amongst a scrum of fringe event promoters.

You’re probably aware that Cancer Research UK is one of the leading lights in pressing for tighter controls on tobacco. Why? Smoking is the single biggest cause of cancer in the world. It causes over a quarter of cancer deaths in developed countries, and nearly one in five cancer cases.

Ambassadors in Birmingham

Ambassadors at the Conservative party conference

This is why my fellow volunteer Ambassadors and I took to the streets of Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham to ensure politicians across the three main parties were given facts, not tobacco industry myths.

Plain tobacco packs

The current campaign we’re working on is The Answer is Plain – a campaign to sell all tobacco products in de-branded, standardised packs. This is something I feel particularly strongly about. According to recent statistics, eight out of ten smokers start by the age of 19. Do the tobacco companies really expect us to believe that fact is nothing to do with their multi-million pound marketing strategies?

Well I for one do not intend to let the tobacco companies get their claws into my grandkids without a fight. So I was very happy to join my fellow Ambassadors leafleting, speaking to delegates, challenging the myths spread by the tobacco-funded press campaigns and showing delegates the truly outrageous examples of slim packs that are clearly aimed at young women.

Nurses and David Collins

Ambassador David Collins with the nurses on our Roadshow in Manchester

In Manchester, I joined three of our fantastic nurses on the Cancer Awareness Roadshow. In Birmingham, I volunteered with the team on the Cancer Research UK stall at the Conservative party conference. Both venues were buzzing with politicians media and celebs, many of whom were very interested in the campaign.

The Cancer Research UK team of nurses and policy staff answered every question with facts and evidence. They impressed many of the delegates with their depth of knowledge, drive and commitment. A ‘Collective Force’ to be reckoned with.

Being brought up in a corner shop, I took the opportunity while in Birmingham to visit the Tobacco Retailers Alliance’s stand in the conference exhibition area. I found it manned by a man who reminded me of my father. He had fallen for the ‘Police fear smugglers charterscare stories.

I told him it was a fear not shared by this ex-copper, as I and many of my former colleagues could see the benefits of plain packs in combating smuggling.

For example, even the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA) on their website accept that 46 per cent of large-scale seizures of illicit cigarettes are ‘Genuine non-UK brands and/or illicit whites’ smuggled into the UK*. So if the UK is an early adopter of plain packaging, smuggled but genuine non-UK brands will stand out like a sore thumb.

This will immediately identify them to the public and enforcement agencies as being smuggled products. The intelligence gained in the easy identification of sellers and consumers will be invaluable, not only to enforcement agencies, but also to health education bodies targeting communities at risk from using illicit tobacco.

Sign me up and send the T-shirt

Also at Conservative conference was the tobacco industry-funded front group FOREST – or ‘Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco’. At their fringe meeting I heard that now familiar ‘smugglers charter’ claim. But the main theme appeared to be that tobacco control was ‘the Nanny State at its worst’ and a line needed to be drawn in the sand.

But the discussion showed quite clearly that even among FOREST supporters, that line is drawn in different places. Many people there actually agreed that children should be protected from irresponsible smokers. I hope, if they think about it, they will extend that to irresponsible tobacco marketing.

My line in the sand is clear. If trying to stop Big Tobacco getting the next generation hooked makes me a Nanny, then sign me up and send the T-shirt.

Ambassadors in Manchester

David (second from right), with fellow Ambassadors and senior Cancer Research UK staff at the Labour party conference

My advice to you, if you feel the same way as me, and want to support Cancer Research UK in a different way, is to think about becoming a Cancer Campaigns Ambassador. It’s interesting, you meet nice people and it’s very enjoyable. (You don’t have to resemble a minor celebrity. But it helps)

And will I do it next year? On the plain packs issue I truly hope I don’t have to and that this particular campaign will be won, but I and my fellow volunteer Ambassadors will be there doing our little bit for the Collective Force.


  • You can follow David on Twitter @camtia

*‘Illicit whites’ are cigarettes that have been manufactured for the sole purpose of being smuggled into and sold illegally in another market. Their makers usually do not pay tax in the country where they are made. In most cases illicit whites are produced in countries outside the European Union, smuggled into the UK and sold at a street price of £2.50 to £3.00 per packet.