Revealed: Tobacco firms lobbied politicians at Holyrood 34 times

Tobacco companies have intensified their lobbying efforts at Holyrood ahead of a potential tightening of smoking legislation and they met with MSPs at least 34 times last year, The Ferret can reveal.

Firms trying to influence politicians in 2022 included the largest tobacco company in the world, Philip Morris International (PMI), which had 16 meetings with MSPs on the Scottish Government’s proposed changes to e-cigarette advertising and updates to its tobacco control strategy

PMI’s meetings were facilitated by Halogen Communications, a lobby firm based in Edinburgh run by former Scottish Tories’ chief of staff, John Crawford, and Raymond Robertson, a former Scottish Conservative MP and party chairman. 

Lobbying is part of politics and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by lobbyists or the firms they represent.

However, anti-smoking groups described the acceleration in lobbying activity as “concerning” and claimed it could undermine Scottish Government commitments made under its tobacco control strategy.

The Scottish Government told The Ferret it adheres to guidance by the World Health Organisation which aims to protect public health policy from the influence of the tobacco industry.

The Ferret analysed meetings recorded in the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register and found that PMI has lobbied at Holyrood 23 times since 2018. Seven meetings occurred prior to 2022, in which Halogen lobbied twice on behalf of PMI, including in 2018 when it attempted to set up a cross-party group on vaping. PMI also lobbied four SNP politicians at the party’s last annual conference in Aberdeen.

Other tobacco organisations lobbying MSPs since 2018 include British American Tobacco, which held nine meetings, including two in 2022, and Japan Tobacco International which had 21 meetings, with 11 of those in 2022. The UK Vaping Industry Association had three meetings, all of them in 2022, and Imperial Brands had 21 meetings, two in 2022. 

Of the 16 meetings PMI had with MSPs, 14 were one-off introductions or briefings, with only SNP MSP David Torrance recorded as having multiple meetings (two). Of the 14 other MSPs lobbied, 12 were SNP, and two were Scottish Conservatives. 

They included SNP MSP Emma Harper, a registered nurse who sits on the health, social care and sport Committee, and multiple health related cross-party groups, including the cancer, lung health and improving Scotland’s health groups. 

We don’t believe these lobbying meetings can be termed ‘strictly necessary’ and it’s concerning to see an apparent acceleration in lobbying attempts by the tobacco industry.

Dr Raouf Alebshehy

Sandesh Gulhane, a registered GP and Conservative Party health spokesman, was also lobbied, as was Scottish Tory MSP Maurice Golden, and Paul McLennan of the SNP. Both are members of the independent convenience stores cross-party group.

The meetings between PMI/Halogen are all described in a similar fashion in the lobbying register. The entries state the discussions were on the Scottish Government’s “consultation on electronic cigarette advertising and promotion, setting out Philip Morris Limited’s position on the matter, as well as our general approach towards tobacco harm reduction in light of the publication of the new Tobacco Control Strategy next year.”

The Tobacco Control Strategy, specifically raised by PMI with politicians, outlines the Scottish Government’s commitment to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) guidelines.

This is not the first time that PMI has attempted to influence politicians on smoking legislation in Scotland. In 2013, the firm lobbied against the introduction of plain packaging of cigarettes in Scotland. 

The company produced reports for the media, as well as writing directly to MSPs, including then first minister Alex Salmond, arguing the scheme would only lead to an increase in the trade of illicit cigarettes in Scotland. 

Halogen Communications also produced a press release arguing that an Australian report into plain packaging and the illicit tobacco trade (also partly funded by PMI) “should give Scottish Government pause for thought”.

More recently, PMI declared that the aim of the company is to go smoke-free. It stated: “We’ve built the world’s most successful cigarette company, with the world’s most popular and iconic brands. Now we’ve made the decision to go smoke-free. We are building PMI’s future on smoke-free products that — while not risk-free — are a far better choice than cigarette smoking. Indeed, our vision — shared by all at PMI — is that these products will one day replace cigarettes.

“We are doing this because we should. We understand the millions of adult smokers who smoke cigarettes. They are looking for less harmful, yet satisfying, alternatives to smoking. We will give them that choice.”

The intensification of lobbying efforts by PMI comes in response to potential legislative changes that could impact the company’s profits in Scotland.

In 2018, the Scottish Government set out its tobacco control strategy, which was a “five-year action plan setting out interventions and policies to help reduce the use of and associated harms from using tobacco in Scotland”. The key objective of the strategy is to reduce smoking rates to five per cent or less of the population by 2034.

Lobbying is part of politics and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by lobbyists or the firms they represent.

In February 2022, the Scottish Government launched a consultation about proposed changes to tighten restrictions around the advertising and promotion of vaping products. 

These restrictions would affect advertising, brand-sharing, free distribution and nominal pricing, as well as corporate sponsorship. The results of the consultation showed a mix of responses, with health and local government organisations generally supportive of the changes, and the tobacco and vaping industry generally opposed. 

Those concerned by the acceleration of lobbying by tobacco firms at Holyrood include Sheila Duffy, chief executive of the health charity, ASH Scotland, who claimed that “profiteering multinational tobacco corporations promoting lethal, addictive products” are “not credible public health stakeholders”. 

She also argued that MSPs should not be giving “one second of their valuable time” to representatives of tobacco firms who are “seeking to interfere” in the development of “progressive” public health policy.

“The tobacco industry and its vested interests are not permitted to lobby on health policies under the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Article 5.3,” Duffy told The Ferret. 

“Big tobacco conglomerates are clearly extremely concerned about cross party democratically elected representatives in Scotland passing legislation and regulations aimed at tackling the horrendous health inequalities and misery that tobacco and related products are inflicting on people in Scottish society, and especially on those who live in our most deprived communities.”

ASH Scotland’s views were echoed by Dr Raouf Alebshehy, the managing editor of Tobacco Tactics who pointed out that the UK is party to the World Health Organization framework convention on tobacco control. 

He said: “According to article 5.3 of that treaty, officials, including those in legislative bodies, should only meet with the tobacco industry to the extent strictly necessary to enable them to effectively regulate the tobacco industry and tobacco products. 

“We don’t believe these lobbying meetings can be termed ‘strictly necessary’ and it’s concerning to see an apparent acceleration in lobbying attempts by the tobacco industry,” Alebshehy added.

In reply, the Scottish Government said ministers were determined to improve health and that its “goal is a tobacco-free generation of Scots” by 2034.

“Representatives of the Scottish Government routinely meet a wide range of external organisations, where we have no control over the matters the organisations choose to raise,” a government spokesperson added. 

“We will consider a range of new interventions as part of our refreshed tobacco action plan including improved support for people who want to quit.”

I believe the wide range of meetings that I’ve had have given me a better understanding of what these sorts of companies are thinking and what they are doing.

Sandesh Gulhane MSP

Sandesh Gulhane MSP told The Ferret he undertook a meeting with PMI to discuss smoking cessation, e-cigarettes and vaping products, among other issues. Gulhane stressed he also met with ASH, as well as e-cigarette and vaping companies.

“I believe the wide range of meetings that I’ve had have given me a better understanding of what these sorts of companies are thinking and what they are doing,” Gulhane said. “I will be meeting with a range of stakeholders going forward to encourage more people to give up smoking, which the SNP have failed to do enough on during their time in office.”

Paul McLennan MSP said he had a meeting with Halogen Communications but “fundamentally disagrees” with PMI on its position around plain packaging and the illicit tobacco trade. 

He added: “I agree with ASH when they state that multinational tobacco corporations promoting lethal, addictive products are not credible public health stakeholders.”

Last June The Ferret reported that the consultation on e-cigarettes legislation reform had been targeted by an opaque online political campaign run by a PR firm in London.

In November 2021 we revealed that organisations secretive about their funders were running astroturf campaigns attacking proposed anti-vaping legislation.

PMI, Harper and Golden did not reply to requests for a comment.

Cover image thanks to Mathew MacQuarrie/Unsplash

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