Martin McKee: What on earth were the LibDems thinking? The tobacco industry and the party conference

mcKee_martinOnce, in a very different time long ago, no one would have seen anything wrong. An organisation purporting to represent Britain’s small shopkeepers set up stall at a party political conference, representing the views of its members to members of parliament, local councillors, and other party members. But this time, the decision by the United Kingdom’s Liberal Democrats to provide space to the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance made headlines in a national newspaper and generated a sense of astonishment on social media. What could the Liberal Democrats have been thinking? According to the Guardian, a LibDem source said that “tobacco industry representatives have attended the conference before and there is nothing wrong with them wanting to put across their point of view.” The first point may be right. The second certainly is not. So what has changed?

First, we now know very much more about the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance than we once did. It claims to have 26 000 members, all independent shopkeepers. It purports to campaign on their behalf and that of the industry in general. However, none are required to contribute for the privilege of membership. This is covered by the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, which brings together all the major tobacco companies. In particular, we now know much about its origins, from a 1983 presentation in Washington by a member of the Public Relations subcommittee of the Tobacco Advisory Council. He explained why the tobacco industry in the UK felt that it needed a mechanism by which those outside the tobacco industry could campaign in favour of the rights and freedoms of those who “work in the industry, for the industry or whose livelihoods depend upon it.” A core objective was “to help put forward the case for individual freedom to counter any moves that might further restrict the right of individuals to enjoy smoking.” However, it was crucial for the industry to make the industry appear independent. In reality, the Alliance has consistently echoed the views of the industry and, in particular, opposed anything that might reduce rates of smoking. Yet by its name and in its publicity, it represents itself as the voice of the friendly, familiar, owner of the corner shop, rather than a few mega-corporations peddling a product that kills 50% of those who use it as intended.

Second, the LibDem conference came in a year when the links between the tobacco industry and politicians have been more prominent than ever. The prime minister tells us that the appointment of Lynton Crosby as the Conservative party’s strategy adviser, a man who has long associations with the tobacco industry, and the decision to drop proposals for plain packaging of cigarettes are entirely unconnected. Doubtless, some people believe this, but the media response demonstrates quite clearly that many do not. Three years ago, David Cameron said that lobbying of politicians would be “the next big scandal,” a prediction many believe has been fulfilled. In these circumstances, one might think that any political party with a thought for its reputation would run a mile from a situation in which an organisation with close links to the tobacco industry contributed to party funds in exchange for the opportunity to “meet decision makers face to face.”

Third, in the very recent past there may have been grounds for not taking this too seriously. It seemed that the war against tobacco was being won. Governments across the world had signed up to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Many were making its provisions a reality. Today it is possible to smoke in bars in only a handful of countries, and they are becoming fewer every year. Smoking rates were falling and the smoking was seen as a means to what was often a slow, painful, and premature death, rather than as something cool and sexy. But, as is often the case in a war, there have been reverses. The progress of the long-awaited European Union Tobacco Products Directive has been stalled. Advertising bans are being circumvented by widespread product placement, especially in movies and video games. The industry is ruthlessly exploiting electronic cigarettes, which are increasingly being associated with celebrities who would never allow themselves to be photographed smoking in public. Now is not a time to allow the tobacco industry to rehabilitate its reputation.

Now that the immediate furore has subsided, it is time to take stock. One can only hope that wiser counsels will prevail within the LibDems when they come to offer space at their party conference next year, even if only to limit the damage to their own reputation. Similarly, having seen the media coverage, other parties will surely be checking who has given them money to access their members. But above all, this should be a wake-up call to the public health community not to let up its guard. The war against tobacco-related death and disability is far from over.

Martin McKee is professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.