British American Tobacco (BAT) headquarters in London. Photo credit: By H005 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hard Brexit could be good news for the tobacco industry, warns an anti-smoking charity in Scotland. The warning comes amidst fears the UK government and tobacco companies – particularly British American Tobacco (BAT) – are becoming a little too close for comfort.

Vulnerable to tobacco lobbying

ASH Scotland has told a committee they are concerned ‘the UK could be more vulnerable to the threat of tobacco industry lobbying, particularly in a hard Brexit focused on deregulation.’ The charity explains that UK-based tobacco giants British American Tobacco (BAT) and Imperial Tobacco ‘may seek to argue their economic contribution should outweigh their disastrous impact on world health.’

A report last year suggested the government might seek to partially deregulate the tobacco industry. This could lead to the reintroduction of packs of ten cigarettes and 30g pouches of rolling tobacco. Both of these were phased out by the Conservative government to deter young smokers.

Others fear a deregulation-focused hard Brexit could make it easier for tobacco companies to win court cases. If the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is abandoned, some experts warn, companies could exercise ‘more leverage against consumers, patients and citizens.’ Judges would not be able to cite EU law in decisions, as they have done in previous court cases such as tobacco companies’ challenge to plain packaging legislation.

Lobbying abroad?

The effects of a cosier relationship between the UK government and the tobacco industry may also be felt abroad. In some respects, it already is. In January, a freedom of information request revealed several meetings between British embassy officials abroad and BAT representatives.

This led to accusations of the UK government lobbying on behalf of BAT. At the same time, the UK has invested £15 million to promote the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control aimed at curbing tobacco use in low and middle income countries (LICs and LMICs). ‘The word hypocrisy hardly does it justice,’ said ASH chief executive Deborah Arnott.

This was not the first controversy involving a British official’s relationship with BAT. Alison Blake, the British high commissioner to Bangladesh, was accused last year of helping BAT evade a claim for 170 million in unpaid value-added tax (VAT) owed by its Bangladeshi subsidiary to the country’s government. Blake wrote to the Bangladeshi government, claiming there was ‘no scope’ to hold BATB liable for the unpaid VAT.

‘We have done nothing wrong’

Blake’s actions were defended by the Foreign Office, who said ‘it is entirely appropriate that the UK government supports British businesses overseas.’ The use of a present tense, rather than a subjunctive, seems a clear admission that the British government does so habitually. A BATB spokesperson was adamant. ‘We have done nothing wrong here,’ they said.

Anti-smoking campaigners took a different view, however. Arnott accused Blake of trying to ‘pressurise’ the Bangladeshi government. She asked ‘this is a company currently under investigation…over allegations of bribery in east Africa, so what on earth is a senior diplomat doing acting as its lobbyist?’ Bangladeshi non-profit Progga called Blake’s intervention ‘entirely undesirable.’

Deregulation has been emphasised since the Brexit vote. Many view so-called EU ‘red tape’ as an odious force preventing the country’s businesses from realising its true potential. This is not true of tobacco companies, however. Their regulation is both reasonable and necessary, in the interests of preserving public health both at home and abroad.