Sunday, 1 January 2012

Tory Health Minister criticised for dialogue with tobacco industry

Two Guardian reports feature Earl Howe's communications with Philip Morris concerning the tobacco display ban (report 1, report 2).

Communications between Howe and Gardant, a lobbying firm representing Philip Morris at Westminster, have been made public by a whistle blower at Philip Morris. They comprise a series of emails. Report 1 describes the situation like this:
It is only now that a Philip Morris whistleblower has leaked scores of the company's internal emails that the lengths to which lobbyists went to derail tobacco control measures have become apparent – nurturing a "grassroots" campaign that painted an apocalyptic picture of what would happen to newsagents if displays were banned. 
Howe, a Rugby-and-Oxford-educated peer who left a high-flying banking career to run his family farm and serve the Tories, shared these views. Along with many Conservatives, he agreed that the ban was "anti-business" and would damage the livelihoods of small shopkeepers. He also agreed with the tobacco industry's disputed claim that the ban would have no impact on reducing smoking among young people. Indeed, in one debate, he claimed that evidence from Canada and Iceland, where such bans already exist, was "at best speculative" – the key line advanced by the tobacco industry's army of lobbyists.
This is an ill-disguised attempt to divide the world in terms of evil tobacco companies with no regard for the rest of the world, and the rest of us who need protection from them.

1. Lobbyists were not 'derailing tobacco control measures', they were discussing the contents of a controversial bill. 2. I don't know quite what the Guardian refers to ('"grassroots"'), but I do know that a substantial number of people who are not lobbyists for the tobacco industry also fear for the impact on small shops once the ban is implemented in them – based on their experiences in pubs, where no economic damage was expected. 3. Howe's capitalist credentials (the report also points out that he is a hereditary peer) are only relevant insofar as they seek to persuade readers that only nastily rich people without a democratic mandate would consider opposing the tobacco display ban. 4. 'Along with many Conservatives': I'm not a Conservative, and I agree that the ban is very unhelpful to businesses. 5. The tobacco industry is not alone in disputing youth smoking figures in Iceland and Canada. More here. 6. Using a line advanced by tobacco industry lobbyists does not invalidate it, except in a world infected by the anti-democratic authoritarianism of the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (especially Article 5.3).

I hold no candle for Earl Howe and actually know very little about him beyond the banking and farming experience referred to in this article. But it seems to me that all he was doing was ensuring that the tobacco industry was able to contribute to the discussion of a bill that aimed to remove all its retail display space. Allowing an industry to participate in such a drastic bill seems eminently reasonable. From Report 2:
A spokesman for Howe said any suggestion that the government's health policies had been influenced by the tobacco industry was completely incorrect. "As an opposition spokesman, it was incumbent on Earl Howe to speak to all sides in the runup to debates on government plans to ban the display of tobacco products in shops," the spokesman said. "He met with anti-smoking groups as well as representatives of the tobacco industry. The job of any opposition spokesman is to challenge and scrutinise all proposals to ensure laws are as well drafted as possible."
Labour Shadow Health Minister Jamie Reed's response consists of more hyperbole:
"It is alarming that a health minister ever thought it appropriate to seek the help of the tobacco industry in sabotaging plans to reduce smoking-related diseases," Reed said. "Howe is the minister now tasked with forcing the government's reckless dismantling of our NHS through parliament in early 2012.
The link between a tobacco display ban and a certain decline in smoking-related diseases is tenuous indeed. The comment about dismantling the National Health Service has little relevance and is yet another attempt to link opposition to the tobacco display ban with reckless capitalism.  Reed goes on:
"Labour will be asking serious questions about his links to Philip Morris International and this further example of the close ties between Tory ministers and tobacco and junk food manufacturers."
Being shadow health minister I guess that puts attacking tobacco and junk food well within Lee's comfort zone these days, but let him not forget others, such as pharmaceutical companies and private healthcare interests, also keen to buy influence within government. Seeking influence within government is not an activity unique to tobacco interests.

If Earl Howe loses his job, this will be a shameful concession to FCTC, Article 5.3: as a nation state, our leaders should be entitled to hear submissions from all interested parties to legislation in its progress through Parliament. If as Deborah Arnott alleges his links with the tobacco industry were not properly declared this can be corrected. This is not a sacking offence, indeed it should not be an offence at all.

Happy New Year!


Bill Gibson said...

Freddie, you should have asked me my opinion !!!!

JJ said...

Article 5.3 where do you dig these facts up from...great I love it. It pokes the zealots in the eye, because they have consistenly refused to speak to the tobacco industry.

Surely it can't be right to exclude one party whose legal prodluct is affected by impending legislation...particularly when they put so much into the country's coffers.

Happy New Year Belinda.