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Just how badly does a company have to behave to be denied special access to politicians elected to safeguard their voters’ health and other interests? Despite a long record of doing its utmost to prevent effective tobacco control policies in Europe, British American Tobacco (BAT) has been allowed to hold a lobbying event on its "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) programme in the European Parliament. Using the tired old rhetoric that politicians and parliamentary officials should have learned to decode long ago, BAT billed the event, held in January, as a "stakeholder dialogue" and part of its 2006 social reporting process.
To try to make politicians and others think that everyone, like it or not, is a "stakeholder" in its wretched business, is one of its most invidious tricks. Politicians worth their salt, not to mention salaries, can surely see through such corporate sophistry? Moreover, they cannot have failed to hear about the widely publicised evidence from BAT’s own documents revealing the true nature of its CSR and youth education programmes. Nor does it take much thought to work out how the company justifies spending its shareholders’ money on such public relations nonsense. Obviously, it must be aimed at mitigating what the politicians might otherwise do to reduce consumption, the only proven way to reduce future tobacco induced disease.
Commendably, Cancer Research UK, by far Europe’s largest health charity, came out strongly against the decision. Dr Jean King, its director of tobacco control, said, "There is a mountain of evidence that tobacco companies cannot be trusted to deliver on their promises of social responsibility." She said her organisation was gravely concerned by the way tobacco companies seemed to be attempting to influence governments. This concern is echoed by tobacco control advocates worldwide, who fear that victories for health in recent years may breed a complacency that allows the industry not just to live with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but to thrive under it. For BAT, being treated as "normal" by the European parliament must rate as a major step towards renewed normality.