Pro-tobacco MPs accepted hospitality from cigarette company

Six Conservative MPs who voted against a proposal for selling cigarettes in plain packages have accepted thousands of pounds worth of hospitality from  the multinational Japan Tobacco International.

A short version of my article was printed in the Telegraph, the longer version can be found online here, or after the fold.

MP opponents of plain-packaging for cigarettes accepted hospitality from tobacco giant

By 

The Daily Telegraph, 28 Jun 2012

The open letter, which warns that the new policy ‘threatens more than 5,500 jobs directly employed by the UK tobacco sector’, will be delivered to the health secretary Andrew Lansley tomorrow.
MPs who signed a letter calling for the Department of Health to abandon a proposal to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes have accepted hospitality worth thousands of pounds from a major tobacco company, it can be revealed.Of the 51 MPs who have signed, six have each accepted tickets and lunch at the Royal Chelsea Flower Show worth more than £1,100 from Japan Tobacco International (JIT), which owns the Silk Cut, Mayfair and Benson & Hedges brands.

They were Brian Binley, Stephen Metcalfe, Therese Coffey, Laurence Robertson, Karl McCartney and Alun Cairns.

Martin Dockrell, director of policy at the campaign group Action on Smoking Health, said: “This is how it works: a couple of MPs take a ‘little harmless hospitality’ from big tobacco.

“It’s all very cosy. Next thing, those MPs are having a word with other MPs and the tobacco company gets its letter to the health secretary. Job done.”

Binley, MP for Northampton South, also accepted two tickets to the opera festival Glyndebourne from the company last spring, valued at £1,132.

He told the Telegraph: “I have not acted immorally. [JIT] made a kind invite that I accepted on that basis.

“From the perspective of freedom, people who smoke are victimised. No-one is doing very much about the 40,000 who die from eating too much every year.”

Metcalfe, Coffey and Robertson also denied that there was a conflict of interests.

Robertson added: “If companies cannot compete through brand loyalty and their packaging, they would resort to competing on price and that would make the matter worse.”

The letter was initiated by the MP Ian Paisley, whose constituency North Antrim contains a JIT-owned tobacco factory in Ballymena.

It reads: “There is no reliable evidence that plain packaging will have any public health benefit,” adding that a standardised packet design could make tobacco smuggling easier.

The letter continues: “This policy threatens more than 5,500 jobs directly employed by the UK tobacco sector… Jobs in design and branding as well as those in manufacturing and printing are all at risk over the proposals.”

Japan Tobacco International has spent more than £23,000 courting MPs in the last eighteen months.

Defence minister Philip Hammond also attended the Royal Chelsea Flower Show last year with his wife as guests of the company.

Crispin Blunt, the under-secretary of state for justice, accepted tickets to watch test match cricket at the Oval in August valued at £695.

There is no suggestion that either Mr Hammond or Mr Blunt have taken any pro-tobacco action as a result of the hospitality they received.

In November, Labour MP Alex Cunningham wrote to the parliamentary standards commissioner after seven MPs who had accepted hospitality from the firm – including Coffey, Metcalfe and Cairns – voted against his Private Member’s Bill banning smoking in cars carrying children.

The commissioner’s office said it had not upheld any complaints on the issue.

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