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Revealed: given special access to public health minister, what the APPG on Smoking and Health said in private meeting during plain packs consultation

Hats off to Dick Puddlecote for some impressive digging.

Last month I reported that The Times had revealed what I called the unhealthy relationship between a minister, the APPG on Smoking and Health and ASH.

Quoting correspondence between the Department of Health and Imperial Tobacco, which it obtained through Freedom of Information, The Times disclosed how a delegation of anti-smoking MPs led by Stephen Williams, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health and a leading supporter of Plain Packs Protect, had met public health minister Anne Milton in her ministerial office on April 30, 2012.

This "informal" meeting took place two weeks after the launch of the government consultation on plain packaging of tobacco and was reported to have been arranged at the request of Williams, APPG secretary (Bob Blackman MP) and vice-chairman (Kevin Barron MP).

Today, thanks to another FOI disclosure, DP has revealed part of their agenda. In his words, it "stinks".

Incredibly, a note from the meeting suggests there may have been an attempt to lobby the minister to reject, ignore or minimise the significance of responses to the consultation from groups opposed to plain packaging.

It reads:

The APPG expressed concerns that results from any consultation would be skewed if consumer/retail groups were used to inflate responses.

We don't know the minister's full reaction but considering that the techniques used by Forest/Hands Off Our Packs – which eventually submitted the names of over 235,000 people opposed to plain packaging – were very similar to those used by tobacco control groups during a previous consultation (on the Future of Tobacco Control), their hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Truth is, ever since they realised they had a battle on their hands, tobacco control lobbyists have cried 'Foul!' and done everything they can to denigrate or undermine campaigns run by groups such as Forest, the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and others.

Their hypocrisy is even more staggering when you consider the extent to which the outcome of public consultations have consistently been 'skewed' by the dubious use of public money and the systematic utilisation of state sector workers to lobby and register support for further tobacco control measures.

(Does anyone believe that the pro plain packs campaign would have been able to submit anything like 210,000 names without the support of the public sector or the use of hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money? If so, dream on.)

Requesting a meeting with the minister responsible for the consultation during the consultation period and then using that meeting to raise concerns about campaigns run by "consumer/retail groups" is pretty slippery behaviour.

The real villains however are not the anti tobacco lobbyists, who are merely pushing the boundaries as far as they can, but the minister and civil servants at the Department of Health who allowed the meeting to take place when it did.

What were they thinking? As Dick Puddlecote also reveals:

Cancer Research UK had suggested a meeting with Andrew Lansley in May, and they were open about what CEO Harpal Kumar wanted to talk about.

'In advance of Cancer Research UK's parliament day on 27th June, I am writing to request a meeting with you on the day.

'We are delighted that the consultation has been published. You are well aware of our position and you will of course already be familiar with our desire to see plain packaging introduced as soon as possible. We would be happy to update you on the campaign.'

Lansley was less than enthusiastic, for good reason.

'Unfortunately, it is not possible to set up a meeting on the issue of tobacco packaging at this time ...'

For why?

'As I am sure you will understand, there are many groups with interest in this issue and it would not be possible, or appropriate, for me to try to meet with everyone who has an interest while the consultation is underway.'

In contrast someone clearly decided it was not inappropriate for public health minister Anne Milton to meet a delegation of tobacco control lobbyists on April 30, just two weeks after the consultation had been launched.

Thanks to The Times, Dick Puddlecote and Freedom of Information, a picture is emerging that sheds a fascinating light on the darker aspects of the consultation and the efforts of those who appear increasingly desperate to undermine the consumer/retail arguments against plain packaging.

Knowing what we now know, and have documented over the last few months, I can't wait to read the Government's long-awaited consultation report!

PS. Just to be clear, All Party Parliamentary Groups have NO formal place in the legislature. There is no reason, therefore, why representatives of any APPG – MPs or otherwise – should be given preferential treatment by ministers.

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