Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Killing Industry

The tobacco industry has been accused of “appalling hypocrisy”, amid claims that it is fuelling the illicit trade in cigarette smuggling to bolster its arguments against tax increases and other anti-smoking measures. In a report published to coincide with World No Tobacco Day, the pressure group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) claimed that some tobacco companies are flooding foreign markets with more products than there is demand. The report said that when some of this tobacco is subsequently smuggled back to the UK, it enables the companies to point to the dangers of a burgeoning contraband trade and to say that measures such as increasing tax would only serve to make legitimate cigarettes more expensive.

The World Health Organisation claimed: “The tobacco industry covertly and overtly supports the illegal trade, from providing products to the market, to working to block tobacco control by trying to convince governments that measures like health warnings or tax increases will lead to more illicit trade.”

Suspicions about oversupplying foreign markets to stimulate a return trade in smuggling to the UK have been raised by organisations including HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which has reported that the 2011 supply of some brands of rolling tobacco to some countries exceeded legitimate demand by 240 per cent. In November, British American Tobacco was fined £650,000 by HMRC for oversupplying cigarettes to Belgium, although the company insisted it was “providing a perfectly legal supply to a legitimate demand” and announced its intention to challenge the fine in court.

Meanwhile, Employment minister, Priti Patel, was once part of a team of spindoctors paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to help a tobacco giant counter negative publicity. Patel’s job was to lobby MEPs against the introduction of the EU tobacco control directive, which was introduced shortly after the new millennium. She was charged with ensuring that a letter from the BAT chairman at the time, Martin Broughton, outlining his objection to the directive, was faxed to every MEP. BAT was charged £165 an hour for Patel’s services.

In addition to her work lobbying MEPs, Patel’s team played a key role in fashioning the company’s public profile. In a memo dated 14 December 2000, a senior executive within the company, Andreas Vecchiet, conducted an annual appraisal of the Shandwick team’s performance. “We have mainly used Shandwick for project-based work relating to the WHO [World Health Organisation] campaign, NGO monitoring … reputation issues relating to Burma, and some limited advice relating to Nigeria and labour standards.”

BAT’s position in Burma at the turn of the millennium was hugely controversial. “BAT’s factory in Burma was jointly owned with the military dictatorship and so helped fund one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world,” said Anna Roberts, executive director at Burma Campaign UK. “BAT refused to admit how much money it gave to the dictatorship, but Burma Campaign UK estimated that BAT paid the generals $16m (£10m) in taxes alone between 1999 and 2002. In contrast, BAT paid its factory workers in Burma just £15 a month. The dictatorship spent 40% of its budget on the military.”

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