Rewriting the script on smoking prevention

In conversation with Charlie Stebbings, Founding Trustee of the Deborah Hutton Campaign

Monday, August 3, 2015

  • The Deborah Hutton Campaign was founded in 2007, focused on smoking prevention in young people
  • It runs Cut Films, an early intervention project and film competition for young people to make short anti-smoking films for their peers
  • In 2015, the Deborah Hutton Campaign will merge and become part of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation

Your wife, Deborah Hutton, was the inspiration for the work you’ve done in smoking prevention for young people – can you tell me a bit more?

Charlie: It all started with some bad news back in November 2004. My wife went to see a specialist, funnily enough about having headaches. In fact that we found out that these were secondaries in her skull from a primary lung cancer.

Ironically she had been the health editor of Vogue magazine for many years, writing on all sorts of health issues, including smoking and cancer over the years. As it turned out, she only had seven months between diagnosis, dying on 15 July 2005.

During that time she wrote an extraordinary book about how to help someone with a terminal diagnosis, now in its sixth edition. It’s called What can I do to help?, profit from the book going to Macmillan Cancer. We had an extraordinary book launch with her there just three days before she died.

The Deborah Hutton Campaign: 2015 GSK IMPACT Award Winner

What happened next?

Charlie: The next morning, Deborah dictated to me a few words to be read out at her funeral. “And if I could ask just one more thing, it would be to go out and do a little kindness in my name.” That became a battle cry for us as a family and her friends.

I spent the next year-and-a-half thinking about different ideas we could do. One of the big things Deborah was very aware she had smoked earlier in her life for seven years, starting when she was 15. This reason for understanding ‘why me?’ was a crucial part of accepting this was not a judgement, but tough luck.

Her wonderful oncologist was very interested in the effect of smoking on girls and addressing the fact that women tend to be more susceptible to the more disastrous consequences of early smoking than boys. With two daughters herself, it was particularly important to her.

And this led to the creation of the Deborah Hutton Campaign?

Charlie: 80% of smokers start before they are 18. So after talking to various people who knew the charity sector I really thought that we needed to wrestle with smoking before addiction.

That meant getting into schools – however we wanted to offer something that could be engaging, fun and creative, not just being “taught” the facts. Since I directed film, my idea was to give pupils the chance to make anti-smoking films that they could share with friends and thereby influence them. Why not also make this a national competition so the best filmmakers could be recognised for their creativity.

So myself and a small board of trustees set up the Deborah Hutton Campaign as a registered charity in 2007. In our first year, we trialled the Cut Films Competition in ten schools to see how it would be received by teachers and children, to find out what quality of films we’d get. It was a wonderful revelation, such imagination on display and how engaging it could be.

What kind of reaction did the initial Cut Films competition provoke?

Charlie: It seemed to be taken on by schools with great enthusiasm – since then we’ve just grown and grown and over the last two years worked directly worked with young people to equip them with filmmaking skills through our youth workers. This year we’ve had about 4,500 children taking part in the project and about 450 films entered into the competition – it’s been amazing.

Whilst we have a uniquely simple brief, it is open to very wide interpretation, as I have seen these last six years and viewing way over a thousand films. It is to make a film of no more than two minutes to convince your friends not to smoke. It couldn’t be simpler.
Charlie Stebbings
Founding Trustee of the Deborah Hutton Campaign

Can you tell us about the awards themselves?

Charlie: Alongside our local awards for the best films in each area, we also host the annual national Cut Film Awards. So we choose the top three films in each of four age categories and then we have an absolute winner. There’s also a Charlie Stebbings Award for the film that I feel deserves special recognition in its unusual take on the subject  and another award for the film that gets the most votes by the general public on YouTube, thereby promoting the dissemination of the films message to as many other young people as possible.

We hold the ceremony every summer at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts [BAFTA] in Piccadilly – it’s a great night out with this year the Awards were presented by Sky One1 presenter, Jacqueline Shepherd and the awards themselves were presented by Oscar winning film director, Danny Boyle. It’s always a really exciting evening for young people to experience and in such a legendary venue.

What kind of impact do you think you’ve had?

Charlie: Changing youth behaviour is notoriously difficult to do and also measure – in particular it’s hard to measure when children move on quickly to different schools or different areas.

We evaluate everyone who takes part in the project. One project of our Trustees has worked in public policy for government health programmes all her life. She has been vital in keeping our focus on quantifiable ’impact’.

Over a couple of years, we’re doing a two-year study on Merseyside in partnership with Cancer Research UK. We will compare our impact on pupils in five schools taking part in the project and a similar control group who don’t won’t be given the intervention. We are really interested in what the results will be.

What have been your key achievements?

Charlie: The initial achievement is the way that it affects individual children to understand how foolish a thing it is to start smoking. They learn that their addiction can happen extremely quickly especially if you’re younger and once addicted, you no longer have free choice in the matter.

We have an impact not just through the film making and competition, but the work that goes on around that. We have youth workers who run workshops on the issues surrounding tobacco and we also oversee youth panels in the schools so that the pupils themselves have a say in the delivery of the work we do with them.

Many young people have built up a connection with us over a period of time and we really see how it has helped to build their self-confidence in being able to debate issues and talk publicly, for example.

We often have young people do work experience with us at the charity. I think film production itself is a transferable collaborative skill in terms of managing projects, communicating, teamwork, etc. It’s a chance for them to do something different from the usual academic-focused schoolwork – I really believe it helps to broaden young minds.

How do you think this approach has been innovative?

Charlie: The use of filmmaking as a way of tackling the issue of smoking prevention in young people was definitely innovative. Very few people were doing this seven years ago when we started.

Our website is also bespoke and makes it easy for films to be directly uploaded and shared, or for teachers to download lesson plans that incorporate our message within English, IT, drama etc.

Whilst we have a uniquely simple brief, it is open to very wide interpretation, as I have seen these last six years and viewing way over a thousand films. It is to make a film of no more than two minutes to convince your friends not to smoke. It couldn’t be simpler.

Its very simplicity actually has produced an extraordinary breadth of imagination and quality of filmmaking – animation, storytelling through different film genres.

You’ve recently merged with the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation (RCLCF) – can you tell us about that?

Charlie: This is really exciting news that we announced in February this year. It’s going to bring us increased stability at a time where there’s a very cold wind blowing through preventative health department funding at local authority level.

We’re still going to be running Cut Films from London, but it’s also going to bring us greater visibility in the North of England where the RCLCF is based.

So while the Cut Films brand and competition continues, the Deborah Hutton Campaign will be running down over the next few months as we make this transition. After seven years, I’m also going to be pulling back my personal involvement having enjoyed such an incredible journey.

And Cut Films has recently enjoyed some recognition itself – can you tell us about that?

The Deborah Hutton Campaign was really proud to receive the GSK IMPACT Award 2015. It’s an award from The King’s Fund which recognises outstanding contributions to the UK’s health and wellbeing. We were delighted to be one of ten winners who each received a donation of £30,000.

We were shortlisted for the Guardian Charity Awards in 2014, into the top 20 from hundreds of entries. We were also highly commended in the Civil Society Awards 2014 – we were in the top four for our category which was health. We’ve also just been shortlisted for the Third Sector Excellence Awards for ‘Small Charity, Big Achiever’.  

We were also Highly Commended in the Civil Society Awards 2014. And we have just been Shortlisted in the Third Sector Excellence Awards 2015 for ‘Small Charity, Big Achiever’. These fill us with pride and it is certainly great for morale.


of smokers start before age 18

Do you think it’s a challenging time to be working in the preventative health sector?

Charlie: All local authorities are having to cut back on preventative health initiatives – and they provide a lot of the funding for the work we do.

It’s still incumbent on local authorities to implement preventative health initiatives including smoking. However they prioritise drink, drugs and sexually transmitted diseases – issues with immediate health and behavioural effects – before smoking, its consequence, whilst more lethal, only presenting decades after the initial addiction.

This is how Big Tobacco gets away with it, is still readily available despite the fact it kills 100,000 people a year in the UK. This distance between your first cigarette and a consequent fatal diagnosis as in the case of my wife has to be understood for what it is and in no way lessens the impact of smoking as a lethal pastime.

So what are the key areas of focus now?


children in the UK start smoking each year

Charlie: I think the real driver at the moment is to go into those boroughs and areas where there is greatest deprivation and poverty. Statistically the incidence of smoking amongst youngsters and their continued smoking into adulthood is very much worse in deprived areas.

I think our merger with the RCLCF and its visibility in the North of England and in Scotland will really help with this, the statistics around smoking in both areas being particularly depressing.

Good luck with the merger – and thanks for talking to us.

Thank you.

BTS and Cut Films Awards 2015

For the second year running, the British Thoracic Society (BTS) sponsored an award at the annual Cut Films Awards. The winner of this year's BTS Award was announced as ‘Be More Shaun’ from Excel Academy Stoke-on-Trent.

The winning team were presented with their award by BTS Chief Executive Sheila Edwards at a ceremony at BAFTA HQ on 1 July - take a look at the winning entry here.