The Globe House, headquarters of British American Tobacco in London, as seen from River Thames (Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Anti-smoking campaigners have accused the UK government of caving in to pressure from the tobacco lobby and running scared of Ukip after plans to enforce the sale of cigarettes in plain packs failed to make it into the Queen’s speech. Minutes released by the Department of Health show that one of the industry’s leading players had told government officials that, if the move went through, it would source its packaging from abroad, resulting in “significant job losses.”
Cancer charities and health experts were expecting a bill to be introduced last week that would ban branded cigarette packaging, following a ban introduced in Australia last December. The plain packaging idea comes from Australia, the country where it was first tried out. Cigarettes there have to be in a drab olive-coloured packaging, and the brand name is in a uniform typeface. The packets are also adorned with graphic images of the effects of lung cancer.
At least one health minister had been briefing that the bill would be in the Queen’s speech. But the bill was apparently put on hold at the last minute with the government saying it would be a distraction from its main legislative priorities.
It has emerged that senior Department of Health officials held four key meetings with the industry’s leading players in January and February, when at least one of the tobacco giants spelled out to the government that its plan would result in thousands of jobs going abroad.
Department of Health minutes released last week reveal that Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International were each invited to make representations to the government, in which they attacked the plan and its impact on the UK economy.
Only the minutes of the meeting with Imperial have been released. They record that Imperial warned if plain packs were introduced it would source packaging from the Far East resulting “in significant job losses in the UK.” (Hmm….the Brits thought little of this when imposing new packaging and labelling for UK bulk-liquor imports from abroad, which will have similar consequential effects (job losses) on foreign economies. Rather hypocritical I would think!)
A tobacco giant, Imperial, also outlined how its packaging research and development department supported small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK and argued that standard packs would “result in some of these being put out of business”.
It added that the plan would boost the illicit trade in cigarettes, which already costs the Treasury £3bn in unpaid duty and VAT a year. And it noted that 70,000 UK jobs rely on the tobacco supply chain, implying some of these would be threatened if the illicit market continued to grow. When asked to hand over its assessment of the impact of the plan, Imperial refused, citing commercial sensitivity.
The decision to delay the introduction of plain packs is a major success for the tobacco lobby, which has run a ferocious campaign against the move. Cigarette makers fear that the loss of their branding will deprive them of their most powerful marketing weapon. The industry has backed a series of front campaign groups to make it appear that there is widespread opposition to the plan, a practice known in lobbying jargon as “astroturfing”. Many of the ideas were imported from Australia, where the tobacco giants fought a bitter but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to resist plain packs. Much of the Australian campaign was masterminded by the lobbying firm Crosby Textor, whose co-founder Lynton Crosby is spearheading the Tories’ 2015 election bid.
Crosby was federal director of the Liberal party in Australia when it accepted tobacco money. Crosby Textor in Australia was paid a retainer from BAT during the campaign against plain packs. Some anti-smoking campaigners are now questioning whether the decision to drop the plain packs bill was as a result of shifting allegiances at Westminster.
“It looks as if the noxious mix of right-wing Australian populism, as represented by Crosby and his lobbying firm, and English saloon bar reactionaries, as embodied by [Nigel] Farage and Ukip, may succeed in preventing this government from proceeding with standardised cigarette packs, despite their popularity with the public,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the health charity Action on Smoking and Health. A Department of Health spokeswoman denied that tobacco lobbying had been a factor in the decision to pull the bill. “These minutes simply reflect what the tobacco company said at the meeting, not the government’s view,” she said. “The government has an open mind on this issue, and any decisions to take further action will be taken only after full consideration of the evidence and the consultation responses.” Source: The Guardian, UK