On March 11, 2015 the world applauded the British government for introducing plain packaging for cigarettes against a longtime opposition of the tobacco industry. Accordingly, the cigarette pack as an advertising space will disappear in UK. The ban on cigarette ads is one of the six most effective measures to reduce tobacco consumption.
Only two days later, British economic interests dominate again and the health of Pakistan people has to back down. Philip Barton, British high commissoner to Pakistan, attended an Islamabad meeting between the British cigarette company BAT and several ministers and government officials. During the talks BAT intended to persuade the Pakistan government not to implement the new regulations for cigarette packs which will have to show pictorial warnings on the dangers of smoking on 85% of both cover sides.
By participating in that meeting the high commissioner supported the tobacco giant and increased the pressure of the tobacco industry on the Pakistan government. With little success though: the introduction of the pictorial warnings was postponed for two months, but not withdrawn.
Is Barton allowed to do this? – No!
Barton’s behaviour breaches the regulations of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which has been ratified by the Britisch government in 2004. Following these provisions, Barton shouldn’t be allowed to participate in such a meeting.
The British Foreign Office has adopted comprehensive guidance for its diplomats in 2013, following a similar case in Panama. Accordingly, diplomats must not “provide any assistance in helping tobacco companies influence non-discriminatory local business policies to their advantage (e.g.: taxation, plain/standardised packaging, etc)”. But this is now just the case.
Civil society steps in
A picture of the meeting showing the high commissoner Barton besides the BAT representative Del Vecchio has shed light on this issue. Responding to this news, the British Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) demanded the Foreign Office to publicly apologise for Barton’s actions and to provide assurances that all its representatives will be aware of the obligations arising from the FCTC.
The reaction of the Foreign Office: Barton didn’t lobby for the tobacco industry, but continues to encourage the implementation of the FCTC globally.
This might be accurate, but nevertheless, the reply is insufficient. It misjudges the power imbalances inherent in such meetings. For quite some time, the British government puts trade at the centre of foreign policy. Especially the tobacco industry, who’s business in industrialised countries is on the decline, uses this focus to unlock new markets in the Global South for their deadly products. All the more important for UK representatives to adhere to international standards concerning contacts to the tobacco industry.
You can support ASH’s efforts in advocating through their online-petition asking the British Foreign Office to fulfil its responsibility. Thus, you can support the Pakistan government in enforcing health policies against economic interests of corporations.