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Conservative health minister comes under fire over tobacco briefings

Three teenage girls sitting at cafe terrace, smoking cigarettes, low angle view

Anti-smoking campaigners say that young people are particularly prone to impulse-buying of cigarettes when they see them in shops. Photograph: Alamy

The position of Tory health minister Earl Howe was under scrutiny after it was revealed he received a series of briefings from lobbyists representing a global cigarette company while drawing up his party’s opposition to tobacco control measures.

A whistleblower who previously worked at Philip Morris International’s headquarters in Switzerland has posted scores of internal company emails and documents on the SmokinGate website.

The communications lay bare the company’s determination to resist anti-smoking legislation in Britain.

Among them are exchanges between Howe and the company’s lobbyists, Gardant Communications, that have alarmed health campaigners.

The emails, exchanged in 2009 when Howe was a shadow health minister, show that the peer approached lobbyists requesting the company’s views on calls for cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging. Subsequent emails show that the lobbyists gave several briefings to Howe, who led Tory opposition to the Labour government’s plans to introduce a ban on behind-the-counter cigarette displays in shops.

“It is deeply disturbing that Earl Howe not only met the tobacco industry but also appears to have connived with them to try to undermine public health policy while in opposition,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Ash, the anti-smoking pressure group. “Worse still, he did not make his contacts with the tobacco industry known during the debate in parliament, when he was fighting to prevent the legislation to put tobacco out of sight in shops becoming law. This is unacceptable and his fellow peers should be asking whether he is the right person to lead on health for the government.”

Introduction of the measure was delayed when the coalition came to power, after a powerful lobbying campaign by small shops – co-ordinated and funded by the tobacco companies – pushing the disputed line that the ban would hurt the high street. Supermarkets must observe the ban by this April, but small shops have until 2015 to comply – to the dismay of cancer charities. Health groups and cancer charities say cigarette displays normalise smoking in the minds of the young and removing them will result in fewer children taking up the habit.

A report for the European commission claims: “Restricting or banning the promotion of tobacco products in retail outlets, and restricting or banning the display of tobacco products at the point of sale have been shown to remove smoking cues and reduce triggers for unplanned tobacco purchases in stores. This effect is thought to be particularly strong among adolescents and young people, who are thought to be more susceptible to such displays and promotions.”

Howe endorsed the tobacco industry’s claims that the evidence linking the removal of the displays to a reduction in smoking was inconclusive and that banning them would see many newsagents go out of business.

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.”

However, the Labour shadow health minister, Jamie Reed, said Howe still had some explaining to do.

“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.

“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.”

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