Bullying traits and public health values compared

I know some people find the attack on vapers and vaping by elements of the public health establishment stressful and anxiety-inducing. […]

Banksy sums it up (via @therealbanksy)

I know some people find the attack on vapers and vaping by elements of the public health establishment stressful and anxiety-inducing. I’m one of them, and I’m not even a vaper or smoker, whose health and wellbeing may in part be determined by what these people say and do. I think it is so stressful because the interaction has many of the traits associated with bullying.  

The last 24 hours saw a petulant petty online bullying attack on a vaper who had the temerity to have her letter published in the Lancet. The letter itself had already been watered down from the angry despairing original challenge to public health bullying and the establishment bullies protecting their bullying mates.  Why do I place so much emphasis on bullying? Because that is basically what it is, what they do and who they are.

One of the best resources on bullying was established by the late Tim Field [Bully Online]. His focus was on workplace bullying, but the aggressive narcism that characterises bullies is present in many settings… He draws out the following character types that are prone to bullying.


  • May occupy a role that is important in some way;
  • Very self-assured;
  • May be believed to be doing or to have done something selfless or of great value, eg charitable work or turning a failing department or business around;
  • May give off an impression of trustworthiness and reliability.
  • Has an air of untouchability: questioning this person’s actions or decisions is taboo especially among peers and superiors.


  • compulsive liar: spontaneously makes things up to fit the needs of the moment; routinely embellishes stories for effect;
  • convinces superiors and peers by seeming plausible and convincing, sometimes by copying others’ behaviour, words or work;
  • portrays him or herself as kind, caring and compassionate but only behaves this way where it leads to personal gain;
  • doesn’t listen, can’t sustain a meaningful conversation;
  • hollow, superficial and glib;
  • seems to have an overbearing belief in his or her qualities (especially as a leader or manager);
  • apparently cannot distinguish between leadership, management and bullying;
    • i.e. cannot distinguish between maturity and immaturity, decisiveness and impulsiveness, assertiveness and aggression, personal objectives and corporate objectives, eloquence and crassness; honesty and deceitfulness;
  • is oblivious to the difference between how he or she would like to be seen, and how he or she is seen.


  • is drawn to positions of power;
  • wants to control everything;
  • has a subjective sense of right and wrong.
    • “Right” is whatever he or she can get away with;
    • “Wrong” could be anything done by others, justifying the bully’s punishment, threats, control etc;
  • projects his or her own shortcomings onto others;
  • distorts peoples’ perceptions of reality through falsehood and gossip;
  • rewrites history to paint a better picture of him or herself and/or a worse picture of someone else;
  • Tells different people different things, causing confusion, disruption, division and conflict;
  • is selectively (un)friendly and (un)cooperative:-
    • is mean, officious and inappropriately inflexible with some people; but is generous, relaxed and very accommodating with others;
    • may motivate allies with the prospect of reward; but motivates most people with fear and guilt.
  • threatens dire consequences for people under his or her influence, who think or act for themselves. Threats could be made directly in private, or indirectly in front of witnesses;
  • warns targets that no-one will believe them if they report the bullying;
  • once called to account:-
    • aggressively denies and refutes any criticism, counter-attacking the critic with fabricated or distorted counter-criticism;
    • claims to have been bullied by the complainant, feigns victimhood, (“poor me”), uses amateur dramatics (bursting into tears etc), to avoid the question and evade accountability,
    • makes others feel guilty for daring to suggest that he or she might have done the slightest thing wrong;

Jekyll & Hyde nature

  • can be innocent and charming some of the time (typically in the presence of witnesses), but vicious and vindictive at other times (typically where there are no witnesses).

Ruthless and unpleasant

  • lacks a conscience, shows no remorse;
  • has a compulsive need to criticise;
  • is often devious, manipulative, spiteful, vengeful;
  • becomes impatient, irritable and aggressive if asked to address the needs and concerns of others;
  • may be emotionally cold, humourless, joyless;
  • may exhibit inappropriate or unusual attitudes to sex, gender, race, disability and other personal characteristics.

Tim Field estimated that one person in thirty has several of these traits, describing them as aggressive but intelligent individuals who express their aggression psychologically (constant criticism etc) rather than physically (assault).

Now I’m not going to link these traits to individuals, and there are many very decent people who work in public health – and no one is all bad. However, I would say these traits are ‘over-represented’ in the fields of public health and tobacco control establishment, and that the internal culture in these professions may select these characteristics for advancement.  This is just an opinion – a personal reflection, having worked in public health but several other fields too, and re-encountered it recently.

You can decide for yourself and leave views in the comments – but I don’t want to see personal attacks against named individuals.

What are the stated values of public health?

These traits contrast sharply with what is supposed to be professional ethos of public health: well described by the UK Public Health Register (the regulator of public health professionals in the UK), in its Code of Conduct, which is based around seven principles.

The seven principles

These key principles will guide and support you in the work you do and the decisions you make. They should influence all areas and stages of your professional education and practice. You should apply them to any work you are involved in, making appropriate judgements about how they apply to you.
As a UKPHR registrant you must:

1. Make the health and protection of the public your prime concern
2. Maintain high standards of professional and personal conduct
3. Be honest and trustworthy
4. Protect confidentiality
5. Respect the dignity of individuals and treat everyone fairly
6. Know the limits of your competence and act within them
7. Cooperate with the teams with which you work and interact

Let’s have less of the former and more of the the latter. If you work in public health please reflect on these principles and the conduct of your colleagues.

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23 thoughts on “Bullying traits and public health values compared”

  1. A couple of things spring to mind, firstly, do the bullies know that they’re bullies? If they read Tim Field’s list of traits would they even recognise it in themselves? Somehow I doubt it. They see themselves as soldiers waging a war on an evil enemy, and as such they see these traits as leadership qualities, or as weapons, as appropriate.

    Of the seven principles number 5 is the one most commonly ignored by the bullies. I think this is what is behind their continued attempts to label us as AstroTurf, or at the very least an organised mob in thrall to the mystical powers of big Tobacco, or big Vapour, which are of course to their minds the same thing. It allows them to say that consumer activists are not individuals but something insidious and to be despised as much as our supposed ‘paymasters’. Everything else follows from that.

  2. This was a tweet from a recent conference(yes-another one-what happened to the electronic age and carbon footprints!)

    “Marteau: education is the public’s preferred response to public health issues; price and policy is more effective, but unpopular #euspr14”

    The mindset is that,if the public ‘won’t be told’ then PH have a right/duty to impose their opinion by whatever means available.This denies both basic human rights and has no checks and balances to identify when their opinion is wrong.

    I was particularly struck in the above by what I’ve found to be ‘normal’ TC herd behaviour:

    Has an air of untouchability: questioning this person’s actions or decisions is taboo especially among peers and superiors.(and the public!)

    compulsive liar: spontaneously makes things up to fit the needs of the moment; routinely embellishes stories for effect;(almost nothing from TC is both true AND fair)

    becomes impatient, irritable and aggressive if asked to address the needs and concerns of others;(if they say they listen they then do the opposite)

    Whilst the PH mantra is ‘leadership by consensus’ it is difficult to see how the situation can improve

  3. Totally true Clive and may I also remark that many within PH are also showing worrying signs of abject social discrimination against smokers and now vapers. The attitude and behavior of many would simply not be tolerated if their angst was targeted at either the ethnic community or the gay community. It seems that vapers are treated totally different to any other society group who it mustn’t be forgotten are using a legal recreational product. One would also have expected that logically vapers – a large vocal persuasive group of ex smokers, now numbering in excess of 700,000 full time quitters would be manna to both PH/TC considering that for over 30 years both PH and TC have been telling/pleading/coercing smokers to stop smoking. The answer I believe lies in the simple fact that ecigs have the potential to actually eradicate a problem namely smoking that both the PH/TC industries rely on for their very existence and funding.

  4. Yesterday, I read a blog post from a leading public health director contemplating the nature of leadership in public health. It stressed many aspects of leadership that the author considered to be important factors in the success of any DPH position, from individual competence to developing partnerships with local authorities. And yet, its all its verbosity, not once did it mention the one factor that should be the over-arching concern of the profession as a whole – it did not once mention the public.

    Yes, we can be rude, we can be crude, you may hate us, but you cannot – CANNOT – ignore us. We are the reason for your profession to exist.

    In the preample to the constitution of the World Health Organisation, “health” is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. It is not possible to exclude, isolate, taunt and mock the public and still maintain its health under the very definition of the word, and as such the public health profession as a whole is failing in its fundamental duties of care and is no longer fit for purpose.

    They would also be wise not to forget the growth of the e-cigarette. It did not come about through huge expensive advertising campaigns, much as they would like to pretend it did. It came about through word of mouth, with one smoker passing on their knowledge and experience with ecigs to others, until now we reach the point where over 2.1 million people in the UK alone are using them. If we can achieve this through a pure grass roots movement, you can be sure that this is not the only thing we are talking about. We are also discussing the abject failure of public health, its lies, its distortion of evidence, the complete breakdown of trust between us and them.

    And that word is spreading. Your entire profession is now starting to be mistrusted, and each passing day that mistrust grows exponentially as more and more people discuss it and the wisdom of crowds spreads. This is a crisis point for public health, whether you wish to acknowledge that fact or not, one that calls into question your entire message and not just your attitude towards vaping.

    I urge you to think on this. All we have ever wanted is an honest and open debate based on evidence, and not ideological prejudice or 40 year old resentment of a different product and industry.

    The door is open still. Please, for both our sakes, please use it.

    1. Excellent post Neil and it highlights a fact that I only became aware of last week.

      “Public Health” is in fact an industry. An interesting statistic is that in 1964 the most common age for death in the UK was zero, yet in 2014 it is 87. This refers to the most common age at which people die not the mean age. As living standards have improved as a result of better medical care and living standards one would normally expect that the need for “Public Health” has reduced accordingly, but in fact it has grown at an inverse ratio according to need. The reason for its growth is that funding grows and the biggest area of funding growth has been commercial funding matched quid per quo by the tax payer. Public Health really has very little work and is now a Transnational industry that comprises several discrete sections ranging from charities and other organisations which mostly engage in job creation and the subsequent reliance on their chief commercial funder – the Pharmaceutical industry – which duly necessitates commercial promotion of its funders best interests to protect their own interests i.e. self preservation and jobs, pensions etc.

      Anything to do with tobacco, health and related policy is subsequently a free for all. It is a commercial goldmine and treated as such by all players including Public Health who will do all they can to protect smoking on behalf of their funders – the Government and the Pharmaceutical industry who benefit massively from the cash cow that is tobacco smoking.

  5. A couple of points:

    1. The small number of vociferous anti-vapers in PH are not necessarily typical of the profession. We must not be as narrow minded as some and fall into the trap of thinking that all of PH are incapable of seeing the harm reduction potential of vaping.

    2. Bullies are often cowards at heart. I have been amazed at the reluctance of these outspoken members of PH to meet with vapers and discuss how to ensure the harm reduction potential of vaping is maximised whilst ensuring the minimum of harm. Maybe the answer is that they are fearful of acknowledging that sectors of the public know more about this topic than they do?

    1. Hi Sue… Agree with both points. I thought I’d qualified my post to reflect your point 1. And I have many good friends in public health who are exasperated by this behaviour, but also hate it when too much shorthand is used to describe ‘public health’, as if it is one thing. So let me be clear I’m referring to ‘elements of the public health establishment’ and a tendency evident within public health culture.

    2. Hi Sue, the reluctance of some to “to meet with vapers and discuss” – as human beings and as equals, is a common trait of those have too much power i.e they are not subject to enough of the restraints of power created by representative responsible government, which can be sacked by the public on a fairly regular basis.

      Bullies (and other similar dysfunctional types) are particularly suited to the area of independent (i.e arms length from elected government )statutory authorities and the like, especially those charged with nonprofit ‘moral/cultural’ issues.
      This is because these authorities are non democratic- people are usually appointed to high positions by circles of peers that are ultimately often self selecting- and are not subject to the pressure to listen and perform that elected representatives are under. And when you add in a, not for profit, ‘moral superiority’ to the equation it can really get out of hand. After all the other(imperfect) constraint on other forms of power is the market, for most of us if we make a crap useless product, we (mostly) fail and are replaced by somebody who pays more attention to what the clients are saying. And that is clearly not the case in the worrld of the Automonous Health Authorities, often enough.

  6. Very well constructed as usual Clive.
    I admit to having resorted to lumping Public Health into one big group for my sins.
    Partly it is down of course to the bullying, outspoken few getting the majority of the airtime in the media while the more sensible members of public health are sidelined or ignored by the same media.
    Positive reports or writing by those supportive of vapers gets hectored and belittled by the bullies and for the most part the media loves it to get their shock factors in to bump their circulation.

    Do the bullies know they are bullies. . . I really doubt it,they are too busy feeling superior to worry about how they are perceived and put anyone calling them out down to their obsessive notion that any opinion not their own is payed for. Oh and I lost count quite a while ago of the bullies using “I’ve been in tobacco control for. . .” line where they seem to think length of service equals being right, or at least the right to say whatever lie they want to use that day.

    Of course they confirm their bullying nature with two very obvious ploys.
    1. They use personal attacks against vapers who stand up to them instead of educated debate, hence the whole astroturf fallacy.
    2. They block anyone who calls them out on social media using their fallacious astroturf claim as an excuse and in classic bully style play the victim. I have said elsewhere at times the biggest trolls are the ones claiming they are being trolled all the time.

    I do hope the sensible heads in public health can organise themsleves better in future to get the message out that the bullies are not the majority, and not the section the media should be listening to.

    As a last note the vaping community has its share of this type of person also. I try to remain calm and make sensible comment, but most of the time that is very hard when our voices are being drowned out and ignored by the very people who are supposed to be working for our benefit.

    Thank you for your continued support.

    1. It’s easy to do, I’m always reminded of ppl like Louise Ross, West, Bauld etc whenever I write anything. Not forgetting that Gerry Stimson is Public Health too.

  7. I never cease to be shocked that people who claim (and are paid) to improve public health can muster such spiteful behaviour against ordinary*, unpaid, committed members of the public who simply want to be heard.

    *Actually, extraordinary!! Lorien, hold your head high!

  8. The treaty of Lisbon says the EU is obliged to care for the health of its citizens. And “health” is reduced to a biological function, to the absence of illness. We are victims of the war of the WHO on smokers, on obese people and drinkers. Smoking, obesity and drinking are defined as illnesses under ICD-10 and DSM-V. The EU uses e.g. taxes and bans to force us to be healthy and this is in line with the treaty of Lisbon.

    We are no longer autonomous, we are objects and are treated as such. The German Grundgesetz Art. 2 (our basic law, we are not allowed to have a constitution)is no longer valid.

    Article 2
    [Personal freedoms]

    (1) Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law.

    (2) Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. These rights may be interfered with only pursuant to a law.

  9. Quite. It’s also telling that those who tend to do the bullying are very eager to condemn anonymity and desperate to find out people’s real names. Bullies can only be proper bullies if they can intimidate to the full extent of their position of power.

    I’ve seen exactly the same trait many times before in an number of different areas.

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  11. The Public Health Bullies score pretty high as well on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist… Their mental disorder is dangerous.

  12. An excellent comment on events Clive, as always.

    Drip by drip, the weight of positive scientific and behavioural evidence supporting vaping is pushing certain elements of PH into ever more shrill and untenable arguments. That this mindset employs bullying might be seen to be illustrative of frustration borne through simple lack of evidence in support of their own prejudiced perspective and vested interests.

    It certainly displays a clear and thorough lack of empathy to those for whom they profess care.

    It is shameful and unpleasant… but ultimately ineffective… as it merely acts as a lens through which their own failures and elitist attitudes become ever more focused and obvious not just to any general observer but more importantly, to their own peers and relevant decision-makers.

    A tendency of bullies is that they form gangs of like-minded exponents of a limited and harmful philosophy, drawn together by shared prejudices and the need to be continually positively-stroked. I believe public and peers alike are beginning to see those PH gangs at work. Their shameful conduct oozes with an easy and fetid arrogance that – thankfully – more empathic and understanding PH individuals instantly seek distance from.

    These PH gangs are becoming more isolated as vapers, armed with mounting evidence and with the growing support of individuals within their own PH ranks are over the moat and battering upon their crumbling walls. That said, as long as they wield any influence we will maintain the argument… with even more vigour should they continue to lash out and personalise their bullying.

    As vapers, we know from direct, constant, and personal evidence how effective vaping is; we fly in those clouds every, single day. We don’t actually need to be told how effective vapoteurism can be… we already know… and though we don’t always respond ‘respectfully’ to an opposing view that is increasingly reliant upon prejudice, disingenuous lies and arrogant bullying… we ARE the public in ‘public health’ and we are far more deserving of that ‘respect’ claimed as a right of position (it seems) by certain un-named but well-known PH gang-leaders.

    It is staggering that in the realm of public health there are those that believe the public should ‘know their place’ and that they would ever be cowed by bullying.

    Point at them. Then point some more. Continually.

    Thanks for pointing at them, Clive.

  13. (That’s not my FB page, but the group’s)
    Canadian vapers are rejoicing today. Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health submitted a proposal last week that would equate vaping with tobacco use, with a ban on display and sale of flavoured e-juice. The first reading was approved unanimously last week, and went back to some committee for the next step.
    Many, many vapers sent emails to the members of the legislature; if we received replies at all, they were “boilerplate” statements, some of which referred us to a government stop-smoking help line. No, that’s not fair; two of the members actually asked THRA for information, and one received over 250 replies over the weekend.
    The arrogance of the other politicians, and their dismissal of our concerns was bad enough, but a day or so later, in a twitter conversation with a vaper, one member actually tweeted back, “Bill 60 will be unanimously approved by all members.”

    However, at the required public hearing yesterday, fifty people spoke eloquently about their concerns and their experiences with PVs. The result? The bill has been stalled and sent back to the Health Department for re-evaluation. So there’s hope, but there’s also a lesson, and your blog today reinforces that. Thank you.

  14. Clive, I totally commend you for taking this on. However, I think this assessment of it may be rather too facile and, indeed, technically inaccurate. First, that extensive list you quote in the post is much closer to describing a sociopath than a bully. Several of the leaders of “public health” do appear to be sociopaths. Why, exactly, a sociopath would choose to play out his abuses in that arena, rather than one that is more lucrative, is unclear. But it happens. You tend to get sociopaths rising to leadership positions in organizations where either (a) those in control don’t care what someone is like as long as they get the job done (e.g., shareholders of a major corporation don’t mind the CEO is a sociopath if they are making money) or (b) the people in the space are too clueless about such things to realize they are being controlled by amoral manipulators (e.g., university departments; many NGOs; all of public health).

    What we normally think of as a bully is quite different from a sociopath. A bully is someone who seeks important gratification from exerting power over others. A true sociopath does not much care about that, though it might be a mere hobby to them, in which case they are incidentally a bully also (a certain Australian might come to mind for that particular characterization). There are definitely bullies in public health too, but I think it is relatively rare, actually.

    It is currently vogue to refer to the authoritarian tendencies of public health as bullying, but this is really not accurate. For true bullying, the exertion of control to the detriment of others is the goal. While it is a cute tactic to portray public health authoritarians as fitting that description, it is pretty clear that it is seldom the case. Rather, they are acting just like any other conservative force in history (churches, nobility), with disdain for the masses but not getting off on it.

    Indeed, I have argued that the overt personal bullying — which tends to be a British thing that is largely absent in America despite a superficially similar cast of characters — is really about tendencies toward nobility (class superiority) rather than either bullying, sociopathology, or even authoritarianism. It is personal defensiveness that the peasants would dare petition the court.

    1. Well, as one of the “peasants”, it certainly FEELS like I’m being bullied, Carl. Though I do take your point, and perhaps the PH “nobility” is not “getting off” on what they are doing….but what they are doing is certainly “to the detriment of others”, i.e. vapers (and smokers who might become vapers were it not for the PH attacks).
      As for bullying not being a big thing in America, I tend to disagree. I think the system there is just different, so that bullying is less recognised for what it is.
      And although it may not be named as bullying or identified as a major problem, there have been many American films (often comedies, where the bullied get their own back in the end) about teens bullying their mates, bosses bullying their workers and fathers bullying their families.

  15. Spot on Clive.
    I’m trying to present point/counterpoint, illuminate fallacious reasoning, and above all be a voice to remind those bullies that the point of their mission is not to castigate a significant portion of the population on the basis of their emotional distaste but to use reason and insight to realize the solution that THR provides is a net positive moving towards their own stated goal.
    Still, there are a few well-placed PH professionals, charismatic and manipulative, that propound their arguments from authority and willfully bully their opposition in direct conflict to their own stated goals. Their behavior is anathema to the work so many in PH who give their lives in the trenches fighting disease though vaccination, research, education, and clinical provision of care.

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