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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Did lobbyists block Sunak's smoking ban?

The Guardian reports on claims that Rishi Sunak abandoned his “legacy” policy to ban smoking for future generations amid a backlash from the tobacco industry in the form of legal threats, lobbying and a charm offensive aimed at Conservative MPs.

They say that the UK had been on course to become the first country to ban smoking for future generations, via the tobacco and vaping bill, which Downing Street hoped would help define Sunak’s place in British political history. 

However, an investigation by the Guardian and the Examination, a non-profit newsroom that investigates global health threats, has uncovered how the UK’s largest cigarette companies fought against the policy, which would have raised the smoking age by one year every year:

After months of fierce opposition from the industry – and intervention from MPs and thinktanks with ties to tobacco firms – the proposal was excluded from the “wash-up” process, when outgoing governments choose which policies to fast-track and which to drop.

The policy, which in effect banned smoking for anyone born after 2009, was left out despite MPs having voted in favour of it.

Documents and freedom of information requests reveal how four of the world’s largest tobacco firms – the UK’s Imperial Brands and British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and US-headquartered Philip Morris International (PMI) – put ministers on notice of a legal backlash.

Imperial and BAT wrote to the health secretary, Victoria Atkins, in February, to claim the consultation process preceding legislation was “unlawful” because industry views had not been considered.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said it did not need to consider industry views, pointing to guidance included in a World Health Organization global treaty, signed by the UK, that says governments should form smoking policy without influence from cigarette companies.

The Marlboro-owner PMI and JTI, which makes Camel and Benson and Hedges, said the treaty permitted interactions with cigarette firms if they were “necessary”.

Imperial, which owns Lambert and Butler and Gauloises, followed up its warning with a legal letter threatening a “judicial review” challenging the consultation process.

Government lawyers responded by saying legal action might “derail” a bill that ministers believed could save tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds in NHS costs.

BAT, JTI and PMI were named as interested parties in Imperial’s letter, giving them the right to join as co-claimants if a judicial review went ahead.

The article says that as the government pressed ahead with its plans despite opposition, tobacco firms courted rightwing and libertarian Tory MPs with a number of them attending hospitality events staged by the industry. 

The government also came under pressure from rightwing thinktanks funded by the tobacco industry during the consultation process.

They suggest that as a result of this pressure the plan was dropped.

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