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Claims of undue influence cloud UK backflip on plain packaging

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British Prime Minister David Cameron has come under intense pressure over his relationship with Conservative Party election strategist Lynton Crosby following his Government’s decision to abandon plans to introduce plain tobacco packaging and a minimum unit price for alcohol.

Mr Cameron was besieged in Parliament by questions about the role played by Mr Crosby – whose clients include tobacco giant Philip Morris and a drinks industry body campaigning against alcohol minimum pricing in Australia – in convincing the Government to drop the policy proposals.

As reported in Australian Medicine (ausmed/british-government-dumps-plain-packaging-push) in May, Mr Cameron ordered that a reference to plain packaging laws be pulled from the speech delivered by Queen Elizabeth to Parliament in which she set out the Government’s legislative agenda.

Then his Government formally abandoned plans to set a minimum unit price for alcohol, even though Mr Cameron had previously backed the idea as a way to curb binge drinking.

In Parliament, and later in a media conference, the UK Prime Minister vigorously denied suggestions either decision had been influenced by Mr Crosby, who began advising the Conservative Party in the lead-up to the UK General Election in 2005 after overseeing four federal election campaign victories for the John Howard-led Liberal Party in Australia.

“He [Mr Crosby] has never lobbied me on anything,” Mr Cameron told the House of Commons, and later said at a media conference that “this is a complete red herring which is raised by the Labour Party because it is in political trouble…[over] its relationship with unions”.

The British PM said the decision to drop plain packaging legislation was taken in consultation with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt “for the very simple reason that there is not yet sufficient evidence for it, and there’s considerable legal uncertainty about it”.

But a study published in the BMJ last week suggests plain packaging may be effective in encouraging smokers to consider giving up the habit (see Plain packs may cause smoker second thoughts, p25).

Last December Australia became the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging laws after defeating a High Court challenge mounted by the major tobacco companies.

But several tobacco-producing countries claim the laws breach trade agreements and have launched action at the World Trade Organisation to have them overturned.

The activities of political advisers and lobbyists are a politically sensitive issue in British politics, which in recent years has been rocked by a series of scandals involving politicians touting for or receiving payments to ask questions in Parliament or advocate on a particular issue.

Labour has called for an investigation into the activities of Mr Crosby and his firm Crosby Textor for possible breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

At least one Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, is uncomfortable about Mr Crosby’s activities.

Ms Wollaston, who is also a GP, told The Independent she was “very disappointed” by the Government’s decision to drop the plain packaging and alcohol minimum unit pricing policies.

“I think actually what the public are really worried about is the parasitical influence that we get from hidden lobbying,” she told The Independent. “I would like, for example, to know who else is paying for Mr Crosby’s services. The public have a right to know, I want to know, who else is paying for people’s services when they have such an influential position with senior politicians.”

Adrian Rollins