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UK diplomat accused of tobacco lobbying –

March 15, 2012 8:13 pm

UK diplomat accused of tobacco lobbying

By Kiran Stacey and Rose Jacobs

A senior British diplomat has been accused of breaking UK and
international health guidelines by lobbying his host government on behalf
of a tobacco company, in a sign of the ethical dilemmas thrown up by the
foreign office drive to promote British industry abroad.

The Financial Times has obtained a letter written by Michael John
Holloway, UK ambassador to Panama, in which he raises concern over the
“alarming growth” of contraband cigarettes and the “critical situation”
this has caused for British American Tobacco, which he describes as “one
of the most important British companies”.

Although UK diplomats have been encouraged to put trade at the heart of
their relations with foreign governments, they are forbidden to lobby on
behalf of the tobacco industry.

Guidelines produced in 1999 under a Labour government said diplomats
“should not support activities designed specifically to encourage
smoking” and Britain is signed up to a World Health Organisation
convention which commits governments to putting public health concerns
ahead of “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry”.

In a letter to Ricardo Quijano, the Panamanian trade minister, last
month, Mr Holloway complained that BAT was being harmed by tax increases
on tobacco in the central American nation.

He wrote: “The objective of this letter is to pass on my concerns as
British ambassador to the Republic of Panama for the alarming growth of
the contraband of cigarettes into the country and the critical situation
this has caused on the legal industry, specifically to one of the most
important British companies, British American Tobacco.”

Anti-smoking campaigners have written to William Hague, foreign
secretary, demanding he investigate how widely tobacco interests are
being promoted by UK diplomats around the world.

Tobacco bans

British diplomats have faced restrictions on promoting tobacco interests
abroad since 1999, when the Labour government introduced guidelines
saying officials should avoid activities “designed specifically to
encourage smoking”. In 2005, the UK went further by signing up to a World
Health Organisation convention which said: “In setting and implementing
their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, [countries]
shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested
interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” David
Cameron’s coalition gave its approval to the WHO guidelines last year
when it produced its own tobacco control plan.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the campaign group Ash, said: “The
British ambassador was clearly lobbying the Panamanian government on
behalf of BAT and he should be forced to apologise.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office denied the letter sought to promote
tobacco use, insisting it was aimed at curbing illegal trade in

“Our ambassador was in no way seeking to promote tobacco use, is well
aware of our obligations as a party to the [WHO] Framework Convention on
Tobacco Control, and will continue to ensure that public health policies
in Panama are not in any way put at risk,” the FCO said.

In his letter, Mr Holloway wrote: “We consider that the disproportionate
increase of taxes to the consumption of tobacco products in the last few
years has only benefited illegal trade since the consumption of this
product has not reduced and the number of smokers remains almost the

The incident highlights potential problems arising from the government’s
emphasis on promoting trade as a guiding principle of its foreign policy.
David Cameron, prime minister, came under fire last year when he visited
Egypt to promote Arab democracy, but took several large arms companies
with him, including BAE Systems, Qinetiq and Thales.

Panama is particularly important for British trade. As well as being the
fastest growing economy in the Americas, it is the only one for whom the
British are the biggest foreign investors, having committed £8bn so far.
Latin America is also a big market for BAT.

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