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The health minister, the tobacco lobby, and a major campaign to derail a cigarette ban

Leaked emails reveal how a Tory peer canvassed lobbyists for Marlboro maker Philip Morris – and became a willing partner in its bid to thwart legislation that would have banned its products from display in shops

Earl Howe

Tory health minister Earl Howe. Photograph: Rex Features

The shadow health minister’s email, dated 7 March 2009, was short and to the point: “I should be most grateful for any comments from Philip Morris on the attached.”

The “attached”, it transpired, was a letter from campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), warning that the tobacco industry was using a series of legal manoeuvres to wreck plans for cigarettes to be sold in plain packets.

But instead of responding directly to Ash, the Tory hereditary peer Earl Howe immediately forwarded the letter to Gardant, the Westminster lobbying firm representing Marlboro manufacturer Philip Morris, requesting their input.

Subsequent leaked emails show that the following afternoon – a Sunday – Gardant and executives from Philip Morris International (PMI) scrambled to prepare a briefing for Howe ahead of a crucial debate in the Lords on Monday 9 March about a health bill containing a series of tobacco control measures.

The emails show Howe and Labour peer Lord Borrie, who also opposed parts of the bill, agreed to meet the lobbyists on Tuesday 31 March to discuss “strategy” and “amendments to the bill”. This meeting was one of a series of private briefings that have dismayed health campaigners, who question whether Howe, now a health minister in the coalition, should remain in his post.

Ash’s letter had been triggered by a story in the Observer revealing that the tobacco lobby was using arcane trademark laws to oppose proposals to sell cigarettes in plain packets.

The prospect of losing their branding was alarming for the tobacco giants: analysts suggest it is the industry’s “single biggest regulatory threat”. The tobacco firms would throw everything into opposing another measure – which cancer charities wished to see included in the health bill – to prohibit behind-the-counter displays of cigarettes in shops.

It is only now that a Philip Morris whistleblower has leaked scores of the company’s internal emails that the lengths to which lobbyists went to derail tobacco control measures have become apparent – nurturing a “grassroots” campaign that painted an apocalyptic picture of what would happen to newsagents if displays were banned.

Howe, a Rugby-and-Oxford-educated peer who left a high-flying banking career to run his family farm and serve the Tories, shared these views. Along with many Conservatives, he agreed that the ban was “anti-business” and would damage the livelihoods of small shopkeepers. He also agreed with the tobacco industry’s disputed claim that the ban would have no impact on reducing smoking among young people. Indeed, in one debate, he claimed that evidence from Canada and Iceland, where such bans already exist, was “at best speculative” – the key line advanced by the tobacco industry’s army of lobbyists.

PMI was encouraged that Howe had actively sought its views. Emails between PMI and Gardant dated 19 March 2009 noted: “The Conservative party are feeling more optimistic about withdrawing the clause implementing a display ban… I think the Conservatives will wish to escalate the issue of [a] display ban up the political agenda.”

Another email discussing Gardant’s 31 March briefing to Howe revealed the shadow health minister had disclosed his intention to kill the proposal to introduce the ban: “Earl Howe and the Conservative party are determined to challenge the POS [point of sale] display ban outright at the next [report] stage.” It also explained that Borrie would table delaying amendments to the bill, noting he “carries considerable weight on the competition issue as he is a former chairman of the Competition Commission”.

A year later, as the prospect of a display ban loomed following the bill’s successful passage through parliament, PMI, British American Tobacco and other cigarette giants funnelled money and support to organisations, such as the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, that represent the interests of small shops. The message advanced by lobbyists and spin doctors working for the tobacco industry, and disseminated via slick email and direct-mail campaigns, was that a ban would force thousands of small stores out of business. “Project Clarity”, as it was codenamed, targeted 300 MPs, encouraging them to conclude that “commercial arguments” must “outweigh all other criteria”.

Then, according to the emails, shortly before the election in 2010, PMI’s lobbyists started pushing the line that if a future government was “not comfortable” with the ban, “they should delay the implementation”. Briefings were drawn up for senior Tories then in opposition, including health secretary Andrew Lansley, cabinet office minister Francis Maude, and Howe.

MPs were sent a poll, commissioned by a retail organisation supported by the tobacco industry, suggesting 80% of shopkeepers believed the ban would damage them. At a time of rising unemployment, the campaign struck a chord and, to the delight of the tobacco lobby, the Tories came out against the ban.

Following the election, a deal was thrashed out that will not see a display ban in supermarkets come into force until this April, and which has left smaller shops exempted until 2015. To the further disquiet of health campaigners, a promised consultation on plain packaging, due before the end of last month, was pushed back until spring. Howe denied in parliament in the summer that the delays were due to lobbying but health campaigners remain sceptical. He has also pointed out that he met anti-smoking groups over the same period.

The UK is a signatory to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which says governments must be transparent in their dealings with organisations that have links to the tobacco industry.

“The coalition government has committed to live up to its legal obligations to protect its public health policy from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry, but it cannot do so if industry lobbying is covert and hidden from public scrutiny,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Ash.

Coming at the end of a year in which the defence secretary, Liam Fox, resigned over his links to lobbyist Adam Werritty, and after several lobbying firms were embarrassed in newspaper stings that exposed their willingness to work for dubious clients, this latest row will raise further concerns about the relationship between politicians and big business. In 2010, prime minister David Cameron warned lobbying could be the next “big scandal”, acknowledging there was a “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”

It was concerns about the relationship between lobbyists and policymakers that has led a former PMI manager to resign in the summer and set up a website publishing internal emails exposing his former employer’s efforts to thwart regulations that threaten its profits. Interviewed by the Observer last week, the whistleblower, who gives his name only as “Max”, suggested he had plenty of ammunition left. “We have more stories,” he said. “One on Australia, one on the EU, possibly another on the UK. There will be more to come.”

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