IEA funding scandal shows neither Europe nor Britain immune to tobacco industry playbook
The recent revelations that British American Tobacco (BAT) is secretly funding the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the “free market” thinktank that has been lobbying heavily against public health measures designed to crack down on smoking, obesity and excessive alcohol consumption, is just the latest reminder of how much influence “sin” industries like tobacco and alcohol still wield over politicians and policy across Europe. The IEA – whose board members have been significant donors to Britain’s Conservative Party, and which also boasts links to prime ministerial candidates Matt Hancock and Dominic Raab – has also called for the NHS to be abolished—similarly to the US-based think tank the American Enterprise Institute, which called for the abolition of the World Health Organization (WHO) just as the world was making progress on international anti-tobacco treaties.
Unfortunately, this discovery is just the latest instance in which the tobacco industry has been caught manipulating political and legislative processes across the globe. While the sector’s handiwork has been particularly noticeable in the United States and Africa, the UK and the EU are far from immune. While the IEA news is discomfiting, the European Commission’s decision to pursue a “mixed solution” (instead of an independent one) to the illegal tobacco trade – an approach relying on the industry to effectively police itself – represents a far greater and more dangerous victory for the tobacco’s pervasive influence campaigns.
The opaque origins of IEA funding
With annual expenditures of £2.3 million, the IEA is one of the most influential thinktanks in the UK. According to independent watchdog Transparify, it also ranks among the three least transparent outfits in the country, and has been notoriously tight-lipped about where it gets its money. Now, investigations from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) have uncovered direct links to the tobacco industry. Among a list of other donors from the world of tobacco, alcohol and sugar, BAT was found to have bankrolled the IEA as far back as 1999. Further questioning revealed the tobacco giant is still doing so today.
No surprise, then, that the IEA has been an outspoken critic of important public health measures in the UK, and a forthright proponent of privatisation of the NHS. Its ongoing relationship with the tobacco industry is even more troubling when the IEA’s influence over the Tory government is taken into account. To date, the organisation has donated at least £166,000 to 30 individual MPs and a cumulative £4.3 million to the Conservative Party. The shadowy origins of that money, alongside allegations that the IEA offers its donors the chance to speak directly with politicians, cast aspersions on the legitimacy of its status as a charitable organisation.
Backroom deals in public views
Though disturbing, these links to the tobacco industry should not be a surprise to anyone. BAT and its competitors have a problematic track record when it comes to interfering in legislation all across the globe. In Kenya, BAT has fought against regulation of the tobacco industry every step of the way, while the industry has sent intimidatory letters to the governments of at least eight African countries, threatening contravention of their own constitutions and dire economic repercussions if they proceed with anti-smoking legislation.
The industry is just at accomplished at using the carrot as it is the stick. Aided by whistle-blowers and undercover investigators, the BBC exposed in 2015 how BAT employees have given bribes to public officials and politicians across Africa. BAT has condemned the practice and distanced themselves from those involved, denouncing the payments as “unlawful bribes”.
BAT and its competitors have not been so coy or cunning in their approach to American lawmakers. In one particularly scandalous episode from 1995, Representative John Boehner – who would go on to become Speaker of the House of Representatives – handed out tobacco industry cheques to his fellow representatives just moments before they were due to vote on a bill abolishing a £38 million subsidy for the tobacco sector. Unsurprisingly, the law did not pass.
Europe’s enduring vulnerability
Europe is by no means immune to the tobacco industry’s efforts to influence policy. The revision of the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) was, in the words of a spokesperson for the European Parliament, “the most lobbied dossier in the history of” the bloc. Those efforts were not in vain, according to a study on the topic, Big Tobacco’s bullying and buffeting resulted in measurable effects on the final shape of the directive.
The industry has now turned its attention to the EU’s latest attempt to regulate the sector: the establishment of a bloc-wide system to track and trace (T&T) tobacco products. It has championed its own “solution” to the problem, a system named Codentify which, quite apart from its links to the industry, has been derided as inefficient, easy to manipulate and falling short of satisfying several key criteria in the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP)— a text adopted by the World Health Organization to put an end to tobacco parallel trade. This protocol compels its members to adopt a T&T system controlled by public authorities which is fully independent from the tobacco industry.
Even if Codentify is not adopted as such by the EU, the industry has succeeded in talking the bloc into a “mixed solution” in which key responsibilities will be in the hands of tobacco manufacturers. Furthermore, tobacco lobbying may also have succeeded in having its historical partners appointed as central actors of the system (with data storage and processing at the EU central level handled by Dentsu Aegis, and at a local level by Atos, both promoters and implementers of Codentify).
A leopard can’t change its spots
Both policymakers and the public have been afforded ample evidence over the years that BAT and its competitors cannot be trusted and are more than willing to take underhanded measures to protect their interests, but the tobacco industry’s lobbyists and advocates are seemingly still allowed direct access to those manning the regulatory levers in both Europe and Britain. Official acquiescence has allowed the industry to effectively write – and then undermine – tailored rules on track and trace in Europe. Which public health measure will be next?