Secretary of state kept meeting tobacco firm against health advice – and conveyed their pro-cigarette lobbying to chancellor: Declassified file

The secretary of state repeatedly met with one of the UK’s largest cigarette manufacturers well into the 1990s – despite regular advice from health officials not to do so, declassified documents reveal.

Thursday, 31st December 2020, 7:01 am
The Gallaher factory in Ballymena was one of the main employers in Northern Ireland

Sir Patrick Mayhew met the Gallaher tobacco company management on an annual basis and agreed to represent their views to the chancellor as they fought against government efforts to make cigarettes more expensive to discourage smoking.

In 1994 the company employed 1,300 people, mostly at its Ballymena factory, making it one of Northern Ireland’s largest employers.

Then owned by the US multinational American Brands, which had a turnover of more than £14 billion, Gallahers was making 74 million cigarettes a day and 15 tonnes of pipe and roll-your-own tobacco.

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The company produced the UK’s two top-selling brands – Benson and Hedges Special Filter and Silk Cut King size – as well as another top seller, Berkeley Superkings.

Despite clear evidence of how smoking damaged health, the company had received £23.3 million in government grants between 1980 and 1996.

Yet while the government continued to incentivise the company with public money, a 1994 Department of Economic Development briefing made clear that cigarette smoking “is now accepted by government as one of the main causes of ill-health and premature death”.

The briefing, which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year rule, said it was estimated that “each year in Northern Ireland around 2,500 people die from smoking-related diseases”, and that “approximately one million working days are lost here each year due to smoking-related illnesses, with an estimated £17 million spent on hospital care for those who smoke”.

Two days after Sir Patrick’s appointment as secretary of state in April 1992, the Tobacco Advisory Council wrote him a letter of congratulations, highlighted its “constructive working relationship” with his predecessor, and suggested a meeting.

Nine days after that, Gallaher chief executive Peter Wilson wrote his own letter of congratulations to Sir Patrick, telling him that he knew his predecessor for many years. He said that Gallaher always had an “excellent relationship” with the NIO and the Secretary of state, and expressed his “deep concern” over the company’s future before again suggesting a meeting.

In a 1992 memo, Industrial Development Board official Brian Smith advised ahead of the secretary of state meeting the company: “It has not been the normal practice to issue a press release after these meetings and we would advise that a similar approach is adopted for this meeting.”

The memo went on: “The pending EC Directive banning tobacco advertising is causing grave concern to the industry. They argue that advertising does not promote an increase in smoking, but can create brand loyalty and has been used by UK producers to protect the quality of image of domestic products against the low price competition of cheap imports.”

Someone has written by hand in the margin: “Rubbish!!!”.

Gallaher managing director, Peter Veen, wrote to the secretary of state in October 1994 to lobby against government tax hikes on tobacco, attempting to persuade him that not only would this be “extremely damaging for the long-term future of the industry”, but it would also “eventually impact on government tax revenues”.

A May 1993 memo from Derek Baker – who recently retired as permanent secretary of the Department of Education but was then an official in the Department of Health – said that “this department has consistently opposed such meetings”.

However, in an apparent change of stance five months later Mr Baker said in another memo that “certainly DHSS would have no objection to such a meeting” but would like to provide briefing on the government’s smoking policy beforehand.

The file shows that the then DUP MP for North Antrim, the late Ian Paisley, repeatedly led delegations to meet the government to lobby on behalf of Gallaher.

The government note of an October 1994 meeting with Dr Paisley and a Gallaher delegation said that the DUP leader “opened the meeting by thanking the Secretary of State for seeing the delegation on ‘their annual pilgrimage’. He recorded that Gallaher was in a better position this year than last, not least because of some success in Russia, but they did have difficulties”.

In a December 1992 meeting with Sir Patrick, Dr Paisley “underlined the benefits which Gallaher brought to the Ballymena area in terms of increased spending power and highlighted the danger to health of cheaper imported cigarettes”.

Arts sponsorship used as justification for meetings

In an indication of Gallaher’s easy access to power, a July 1994 internal briefing paper from the Industrial Development Board said that the secretary of state customarily met the company management every year and also had a separate annual meeting with the trade unions.

However, the briefing said that the Department of Health “have consistently argued against the participation of the secretary of state in such meeting on the grounds that since they are not matched by meetings with the health lobby, they tend to give the impression that the government is more concerned with the promotion of the tobacco industry than the protection of public health.

“The Department of Health and Social Services continues to take the view that the traditional meetings between the secretary of state and representatives of the tobacco industry should be discontinued.”

However, the note showed that others within government wanted to support the tobacco company, saying: “While understanding the DHSS concerns, IDB considers it important that the secretary of state continues to meet the tobacco industry”, and went on to highlight its contribution to the economy.

It also argued: “Gallahers is a subsidiary of a major multinational [and that] is helpful to IDB’s promotional work overseas by demonstrating the business opportunity offered by a location in Northern Ireland.”

And, most curiously of all, the IDB argued in favour of meeting with the tobacco company because “Gallahers is an important sponsor of business awards and the arts in Northern Ireland”.

It warned the NIO that “a refusal of such a meeting would undoubtedly be interpreted and publicised, especially by Dr Paisley, as an abandonment of Gallaher and of a lack of concern for the retention of the substantial employment provided in Ballymena by the company”.

Gallaher’s Ballymena plant was shut three years ago.


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