A UK ambassador attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a Jordanian cigarette factory part-owned by British American Tobacco (BAT) and praised the new facility in a televised interview, in the latest example of British diplomats violating strict anti-smuggling guidelines. mixing with the tobacco industry. abroad.
The envoy stood on the tape as it was cut and later appeared in promotional material on the tobacco company’s website, but the British embassy in Amman did not keep any record of his presence at the event because the event was not considered a “gathering.” formal”. .
It was later discovered by a researcher who monitors the Arabic-language media, and who conducted a year-long freedom of information (FOI) campaign for the Foreign Ministry to find out. confirmed.
The 2019 incident, which the ambassador said was an honest mistake, is part of a pattern in which British officials appear to promote the interests of Big Tobacco in developing countries, in contrast to the situation in the country, where the UK is considered a world leader in restricting interactions between the government and cigarette companies.
Smoking rates in the Middle East have grown rapidly in recent decades, just as cigarette use has declined in Europe and the US. The Guardian revealed in 2020 that Jordan’s smoking rates were the most highest ever recorded in a World Health Organization survey.
The opening of the factory by Yemeni cigarette maker Kamaran, about a third of which is owned by BAT, was reported in a Yemeni newspaper, which noted that the event was attended by several Arab ambassadors, as well as the then British ambassador to Yemen, Miguel Aron.
“I thought this might be a mistake,” said Raouf Alebshehy, from the University of Bath’s tobacco control research group, who discovered the paper.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) guidelines strictly prohibit diplomats from attending events sponsored by tobacco companies, noting specifically that the ban would include, for example, “the official opening of a tobacco factory of the UK abroad.
Subsequent investigations confirmed that Aron had not only attended the event, but had given an interview to Yemeni television saying that he believed the factory would be a valuable investment, both for BAT and the Yemeni economy.
The UK is a signatory to a World Health Organization treaty that requires it to restrict interaction between government officials and tobacco companies to only what is necessary to regulate their products.
Alebshehy filed a freedom of information request with the Foreign Ministry seeking more details about the diplomat’s involvement in the event, and when they responded months later, there was no mention of the factory opening.
He appealed to the information commissioner’s office, which had received acknowledgment that Aron had attended the event, but said the embassy in Amman had “no formal record” of him because it only kept details of “formal meetings and no receptions/launch “. events like this.”
Aron, who has since left the Foreign Office, told The Guardian that he had made a mistake in attending the event and did so out of courtesy to the Yemeni business community. “In retrospect, I accept that it was a mistake and that I had no intention of promoting the tobacco company,” he said.
The Foreign Office has been regularly criticized in the past for appearing to use its influence to help BAT’s business abroad. The former high commissioner of Bangladesh stepped in in 2017 to help BAT in a tax dispute with the government. In 2015, Pakistan’s high commissioner attended a lobbying meeting between BAT and the country’s finance ministry.
The same year, Foreign Office staff were posted to work in BAT’s offices in Hungary, while in 2020, British diplomats in Pakistan were found to have attended a BAT nicotine bag drop.
“Our ambassadors regularly interact with the private sector both formally and informally,” the FCDO said on Sunday. He also reiterated what he told the information commissioner: that he did not record the event because it was not considered a formal engagement.
Alebshehy said the ambassador’s presence at the factory in Jordan may have been an oversight, but the embassy’s failure to record him raised questions about how many other interactions with tobacco companies in poorer countries go unchecked.
“It is extremely difficult [to track these interactions] because, as you see in this incident, the ambassador was speaking in Arabic, it was reported in the Arab media. I speak Arabic, so I learned it, but in other circumstances it wouldn’t be so easy,” he said.
“We don’t know what’s going on in other places, what other gatherings are going on.”
Activists in Jordan blamed rising smoking rates on political interference by tobacco companies to slow the adoption of the kind of tough anti-tobacco laws that have curbed cigarette smoking in the West, a trend they said is reflected everywhere. the global south.
Alebshehy’s findings were published in a public health journal on Friday.