Obituary: Alison Janet Hillhouse, health campaigner

Alison Hillhouse: Campaigner who changed Scotland's attitude to smoking
Alison Hillhouse: Campaigner who changed Scotland's attitude to smoking
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Born: 5 February, 1939, in Halifax. Died: 17 September, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 76

Alison Hillhouse, who died recently of a primary brain tumour, played a leading part in changing public and personal attitudes to smoking and reducing its adverse effects on the health of the people of Scotland during her 20 years of work for Action and Smoking and Health (ASH) Scotland, the last 11 as director.

Alison’s father, Barclay Fraser, was a schoolmaster and latterly a senior HMI. Soon after Alison’s birth he moved back to Edinburgh where Alison attended Mary Erskine School. After reading history at Oxford and work in the Foreign Office and the public Record Office she married Russell Hillhouse, a civil servant, and moved back to Edinburgh, where her two daughters were born.

In 1975, once the girls were settled at school, Alison looked around for a part-time job and found herself working as assistant to Eileen Crofton, the director of the fledgling ASH Scotland.

Alison took over as director in 1984 when Eileen retired, and served until 1995. Through Alison’s leadership ASH Scotland grew from just two people working part-time to an organisation of 17 staff providing a range of services. It also became an independent organisation, though still part of the ASH UK family, which enabled it to work more effectively with Scottish institutions and media.

Alison played a crucial, pioneering role in raising the public’s and politicians’ awareness of the importance of taking action on smoking, the single most important preventable cause of premature death in Scotland.

This was challenging, as in the 1970s and 80s smoking was still the norm. She did this through being a brilliant advocate, using both charm and persistence. Often described as a “feisty woman”, she was also efficient, authoritative, witty, creative and forthright.

Alison worked collaboratively and constructively with others to achieve the shared goal of defeating big tobacco. This was reflected in her inspiring leadership as chair of the UK’s No Smoking Day Committee, which became one of the most cost-effective smoking cessation campaigns in the world. Also in the way that she worked with dentists, doctors and, crucially, local mothers to stop the building of a Skoal Bandits factory in Scotland, which would have introduced a new form of smokeless tobacco to the UK that was attractive to children.

Protecting children from tobacco harms was a fundamental principle of her work, which also involved her in establishing the innovative Smokebusters clubs in Grampian.

Alison used scientific evidence in highly creative ways to attract the attention of the media and politicians. One of the most successful was the Scottish Epidemic Report, produced in collaboration with the late Ken Brotherston. This published Scottish smoking death rates by parliamentary constituency and local authority area, and was sent to every MP and councillor in Scotland.

This report was world-leading, brought home to policy makers the enormous toll from tobacco among their constituents, and led to numerous similar publications around the world.

Another major achievement was Alison’s pioneering work on women and smoking. When she joined ASH Scotland smoking was not recognised as a major women’s health issue. Together with Eileen Crofton she set about changing this.

This included establishing in 1984 the UK ASH Women and Smoking Group, which produced a series of ground-breaking expert reports on women and smoking issues.

In 1990 she became a founding member of the International Network of Women Against Tobacco, and played a key role in establishing INWAT Europe. She continued to be an active member long after she retired.

In Scotland we led Europe in developing community-based projects which used innovative approaches to help disadvantaged women quit smoking.

To all these activities Alison brought enthusiasm, vitality, intelligence, bright ideas, common-sense, wisdom and, above all, a wicked sense of humour and fun.

Alison’s time as director of ASH Scotland largely coincided with Russell’s time as Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, which meant many formal engagements, often involving foreign dignitaries; she tackled these with aplomb but never really liked being Lady Hillhouse!

Alison’s life was always grounded in her warm extended family, and latterly she took great delight in watching the development of her much-loved grandchildren.

She was a supportive mother, an adventurous cook and a keen gardener, loved books and theatre and was prepared to support her husband’s enthusiasm for music. Her greatest passion was probably birdwatching, which led to many exciting foreign holidays.

From her mother, Janet, who had been born in Spain and had met Barclay on a walking tour of the Pyrenees, she inherited a great love of Spain, the Pyrenees and the Spanish language.

In 2000 she and Russell bought a village house in the French Pyrenees close to the Spanish border, where she enjoyed deploying her fluent French and becoming immersed in local life. It was there in April that she detected the first signs of the condition from which she was to die, after a slow decline borne with calm acceptance.

Alison leaves behind her husband Russell, her brother Andrew, her daughters Catriona and Susie and her grandchildren Lewis, Sylvia, Magnus and Sandy.