The smoke-filled room: How Big Tobacco influences health policy in the UK

Monday 31 May 2010

Dirty tricks used by cigarette companies to derail UK health policies that could save the lives of thousands of Britons every year are laid bare in a report, The Smoke Filled Room, published by ASH today. [1]
Previously secret documents from the tobacco companies’ own archives, reveal how they:
• Conspired to “throw sand in the gears” of reform of their industry.
• Used their financial muscle to try to influence Conservative Party policy.
• Threatened to launch multi-billion pound lawsuits they knew to have little foundation to prevent the removal of branding from cigarette packets.
• Used front groups to shape a EU and UK policy known as “Better Regulation” and then employed the new rules to challenge a World Health Organization treaty ratified by Britain that says they must not be allowed to interfere in the drafting of public health policy.

The ASH report also reveals how Big Tobacco twisted evidence showing that “fire safe” cigarettes would save many lives in order to oppose their introduction – against the wishes of the Chief Fire Officers Association.

Big Tobacco is currently concentrating its efforts on fighting bans on cigarette vending machines and point-of-sale displays in all shops. The Department of Health estimates that banning the displays would stop up to 2,786 children a year from taking up smoking. [2]

Both bans were passed as part of the 2009 Health Act, but cigarette companies are challenging them in the courts and are lobbying the new coalition government not to implement the measures.

Edward Garnier, a Tory MP recently appointed as Solicitor General, is reported as supporting a legal challenge to the ban on point-of-sale displays. He lists in the register of members’ interests several shooting trips he has enjoyed as a guest of the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association.

The tobacco companies also have a fight on their hands in Australia, where the government last month announced plans for a “plain packs” law similar to one Big Tobacco managed to block in the UK. The ASH report reveals how, fearing a domino effect, the industry formed a secret group dedicated to fighting the measure anywhere in the world “regardless of the size and importance of the market”. A free-market think tank, the Institute for Public Affairs, is already warning the Australian government that it faces a $3.4billion a year bill in damages for restraint of trade. The IPA is part-funded by tobacco companies.
The ASH report also details how Big Tobacco hoodwinked MPs into signing an Early Day Motion against point-of-sale displays by bombarding them with postcards purporting to be from worried shopkeepers, and how it has lobbied them, hiding behind front organisations such as the British Brands Group and the charity Business in the Community.

ASH is asking members of the public to write to their MPs to urge them to uphold their obligations under the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and not let cigarette firms and their lobbyists influence health policy.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH said:

“In the current financial climate the Government must find the most cost effective public health measures it can. The ban on tobacco displays will prevent around 3,000 young people from taking up smoking every year. That is the reason health campaigners support the law, and why tobacco lobbyists want to stop it.” [2]
Professor John Britton, chairman of the Royal College of Physicians’ tobacco advisory group, said of ASH’s report:

“This is a shocking account of the deceitful practices of the tobacco companies, not just in past decades but now and in relation to current health legislation. These companies are among the most unethical and amoral organisations on the planet. We have to act to guard against these gross perversions of the democratic system.”
Tobacco campaigner and entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne added:

“Government policy and a WHO treaty are supposed to protect us from tobacco industry influencing health policy so when I read the report I was shocked but I can’t say I was surprised. It really shouldn’t be up to the tobacco industry to decide health policy, that’s what we elect governments for. Tobacco companies are so discredited now that they hardly bother lobbying in the open any more. This report shows their scare tactics allowed them to hide behind small shopkeepers and respectable brands in their campaign to block the 2009 Health Act, a law that dared to put an end to their outsized promotional displays. That campaign failed so now they want to block the laws in the courts. Secret industry documents show how the world’s biggest tobacco companies conspired to stop the Canadian and UK Governments from introducing “plain packs” for tobacco products. Now the Australian Government has proposed a similar law. I just hope they will stand up to tobacco industry bully boys and their lawyers.”

Notes and links:
[1] The smoke-filled room: How Big Tobacco influences health policy in the UK. London, ASH, 2010

[2] The Department of Health’s Regulatory Impact Assessment for the 2009 Health Act forecasts “579-2,786 fewer smokers per annum (for a 10 year time horizon). This is a conservative estimate of potential benefits based on the available evidence.” Page 137