Is Big Tobacco blowing smoke in Cameron’s eyes?

Martin Dockrell of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) looks at the Conservative party's links to the tobacco industry, and the tobacco industry's false claims.

By Martin Dockrell of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

When he was still leader of the opposition David Cameron said:

“I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics; it arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works.”

His government’s tobacco control plan (pdf), published in March, promises to protect health policy from tobacco industry lobbying. They even plan to make respondents to health consultations declare any links with the tobacco industry, financial or otherwise.

This makes sense when you consider that much of the pro-tobacco lobbying – ostensibly from retailers, publicans and smokers – has been bankrolled by tobacco manufacturers.

The problem with hidden lobbying is just that, it is hidden. On April 27th the Guardian ran the headline:

“BAT denies allegations that it funded anti-tobacco ban lobby.”

The very next day they ran the story:

“BAT admits bankrolling newsagents’ tobacco campaign”

And that only scratches the surface. Tobacconomics, a new report from ASH, shows how the industry generates dodgy data and then recycles it through a lobby laundry process to remove the whiff of Big Tobacco.

We have grown used to an industry that misleads politicians and the public but this is one that will even mislead its own shareholders. At their AGM in Bristol Imperial executives were asked what impact Ireland’s tobacco display ban had on tobacco duty revenue.

Three times they were asked; three times the answer came back “a fall of half a billion pounds”.

But this is a matter of public record. Figures from the Irish government show that in 2009 there was an increase in revenue of €50 million in the six months following the ban as in the six months before.

Premises-in-England-and-Wales-with-a-license-for-both-on-and-off-salesAnd have you heard the claim that 50 English pubs have closed every week since the smoking ban? Well there is no official definition of a pub but the number of licenses to sell alcohol both on and off the premises (so excluding restaurants and shops) increased 5% that year and has increased every year since.

In the word’s of the BBC’s Mark Easton:

“Pubs aren’t dying – they are evolving.”

Industry watcher, Professor Anna Gilmore explains how it works:

“Industry funded analysts produce unbalanced and misleading reports, these get recycled by lobbyists and front groups and in due course crop up in the speeches of industry friendly politicians.

“Thus essentially bogus claims become accepted as ‘fact’.”

Let’s look at Philip Davies’s claim that when Canada banned tobacco displays “there was a rise in teenage smoking as a result of the ban”. It all started when Japan Tobacco International (owners of the Silk Cut brand) commissioned consultants “Europe Economics” to provide “expert economic analysis”.

Their findings were quickly recycled by Patrick Basham and published by the Institute for Economic Affairs, thus obscuring the tobacco industry link (although Basham, is adjunct scholar at the tobacco funded Cato Institute). The “factoid” was peddled furiously by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (the group at the centre of the Guardian’s exposé above).

And what does the data say? Well Canadian provinces introduced display bans over a period of several years and it is difficult to link cause and effect, but over all that time there was not a single year when Canadian teen smoking increased and indeed, over the period, it fell by more than a third.

Last year’s Australian election was marked by a $5 million television campaign attacking the Labour government’s plan to put cigarettes in plain packaging. Research shows plain packs would be less attractive to young people, less misleading to smokers and increase the impact of health warnings.

The ads purported to be from “tobacco retailers” fearing economic ruin, but turned out to be funded by the industry.

Andrew Lansley plans to consult on a similar law for the UK. Internal industry documents reveal manufactures do not “want to see plain packaging introduced anywhere regardless of the size and importance of the market however small”.

One thing is for sure, the industry will be lobbying more ferociously than ever before.

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