How British diplomats have defended BAT’s overseas activities


British diplomats have defended BAT’s overseas activities, a company under investigation for corruption by the Serious Fraud Office

Despite the perennially gloomy economic forecasts about Britain, it stubbornly remains one of the world’s most powerful economies. The UK is currently the 5th largest economy by GDP [1] and a number of British companies are listed as some of the biggest in the world.

Unfortunately, amongst the remaining titans of commerce, monsters remain. Two of the largest tobacco conglomerates in the world are British. These are Imperial Tobacco, the world’s fourth-largest cigarette manufacturer [2] with its head office in Bristol. And the largest publicly traded tobacco company in the world, British American Tobacco (BAT) [3], which is based in the appropriately named Globe House, London.

The Government’s Tobacco Control Plan for England commits to creating the first “Smokefree generation” [4], and at current rates of decline in smoking prevalence we are on track to achieve this by 2030. However, it is an unpleasant fact that the transnational tobacco industry is compensating for declining markets in rich countries like ours, by marketing aggressively in poorer ones.

The two British tobacco giants both have significant global operations. BAT controls a myriad array of brands which are active across the world, and are particularly dominant in many Commonwealth countries. This is something that BAT proudly talks about on its slick, modern website, a gleaming example of digital sophistry.

However, behind the assured corporate slogans and sickly professionalism, the transnational tobacco industry is in retreat, under attack from a concerted global effort coordinated by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [5]. Since it came into force in 2005 the FCTC has been ratified by 181 countries, including the UK, covering over 90% of the world’s population. As well as implementing the treaty itself, the UK Department of Health is supporting low and middle income countries to do so too, with an investment of £15 million of Official Development Assistance funds [6]. A central plank of the project is increasing tobacco taxation to drive down tobacco consumption, a policy very successfully pursued by the UK.

The profits of Big Tobacco are under threat, and they know this. In an attempt to protect its revenue streams, BAT has been enlisting the help of British government officials in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade, to fight back against the very taxes and regulations recommended by another part of the British government.

The UK has guidelines which should prevent this, stating that “Posts must not: Engage with foreign governments on behalf of the tobacco industry, except in cases where local policies could be considered protectionist or discriminatory.” [7] Unfortunately this exception appears to be being used as a catch-all, get-out clause.

Initially it appeared to be a one off incident in Bangladesh. BAT had enlisted the British high commissioner to pressurise the Bangladeshi government to overturn a legal decision handed down by the courts on an unpaid VAT bill of £170 million.[8] But an investigation by The Observer has revealed a global pattern of engagement by British officials to actively defend BAT’s interests overseas. [9] This included meetings between embassy staff and BAT in Panama, a UK government trade advisor being seconded to BAT’s Hungary HQ and 25 meetings involving both the international trade department and BAT Venezuela.

When this was exposed the UK government tried to deny what was going on, telling The Observer: “Interactions with the tobacco industry are only permitted where necessary, and we do not allow our staff to encourage investment in the tobacco industry, or provide any assistance in helping tobacco companies influence local business policies like taxation to their advantage.” But it’s hard to see how the behaviour of British officials in embassies around the world are in accord with this statement. Furthermore BAT is a company currently under investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office over allegations of corrupt business practices, [10] so it beggars belief that the British government should act as its lobbyist.

[1] Investopedia, The World’s Top 10 Economies, 7 July 2017

[2] The Telegraph, Alison Cooper: lighting up Imperial Tobacco, 21 March 2010

[3] Chicago Tribune, Shareholders back British American Tobacco buying Reynolds, 19 July 2017

[4] Department of Health. The Tobacco Control Plan for England, 18 July 2017

[5] The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC. Geneva. 2003

[6] Department of Health. Business Case: Official Development Assistance Project: Strengthening tobacco control in low and middle income countries. August 2017

[7] Department of Health/ Foreign & Commonwealth Office, United Kingdom’s revised guidelines for overseas posts on support to the tobacco industry, December 2013

[8] The Observer, (Jamie Doward). British diplomat lobbied on behalf of big tobacco, 10 September 2017

[9] The Observer, (Jamie Doward). UK accused of hypocrisy on overseas tobacco control, 27 January 2018

[10] Serious Fraud Office. British American Tobacco.

*All links active 25th April 2018