UK Ambassador to Yemen attends opening of cigarette factory in Jordan | British American Tobacco

A UK ambassador attended the opening ceremony of a Jordanian cigarette factory owned by British American Tobacco (BAT) and praised the new facility in a televised interview, in the latest example of British diplomats breaching strict guidelines against mixing with tobacco. tobacco industry in another continent.

The envoy stayed on tape as it was cut and later appeared in promotional material on the tobacco company’s website, but no record of his presence at the event was kept by the British embassy in Amman because the event was not considered a “formal meeting”.

It was discovered later by a researcher who monitors Arabic-language media – and who undertook a year-long freedom of information (FOI) campaign to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to confirm this.

The 2019 incident, which the ambassador said was an honest mistake, is part of a pattern of British officials appearing to promote the interests of big tobacco companies in developing countries, in contrast to the situation at home, where the UK is considered a world leader in restricting interactions between the government and cigarette companies.

Smoking rates in the Middle East have risen rapidly in recent decades, as cigarette use has declined in Europe and the United States. The Guardian revealed in 2020 that tobacco consumption rates in Jordan were the highest ever recorded in a World Health Organization survey.

The inauguration of the factory of Yemeni cigarette maker Kamaran, about a third of which is owned by BAT, was reported by a Yemeni newspaper, which noted that the event was attended by several Arab ambassadors, as well as the then British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron.

“I thought this might be a mistake,” said Raouf Alebshehy of the University of Bath’s tobacco control research group, who discovered the article.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) guidelines strictly prohibit diplomats from attending events sponsored by tobacco companies, specifically noting that the ban would include, for example, “the official opening of a UK tobacco factory abroad” .

Further research confirmed that Aron not only attended the event, but also gave an interview to Yemeni TV saying that he believed the factory would be a valuable investment, both for BAT and for the Yemeni economy.

The UK is a signatory to a World Health Organization treaty that obliges it to restrict interaction between government officials and tobacco companies to only what is necessary to regulate their products.

Alebshehy filed an FOI request with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking more details about the diplomat’s involvement in the event, and when they responded months later, the factory opening was not mentioned.

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He appealed to the information commissioner’s office, which received confirmation that Aron did indeed attend the event, but said the embassy in Amman had “no formal record” of him, as it only kept details of “formal meetings and not receptions/launches”. “. events like this one”.

Aron, who has since left the Foreign Office, told the Guardian that he made a mistake in attending the event and that he did so as a courtesy to the Yemeni business community. “In hindsight, I accept that it was a mistake and 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, the High Commissioner of Pakistan participated in a lobbying meeting between BAT and the country’s finance ministry.

In the same year, Foreign Office officials were deployed to work at BAT offices in Hungary, while in 2020, British diplomats in Pakistan participated in the launch of a BAT nicotine bag.

“Our ambassadors regularly engage with the private sector, both formally and informally,” the FCDO said on Sunday. He also reiterated what he said to 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 fact that it wasn’t recorded by the embassy raised questions about how many other interactions with tobacco companies in poorer countries went unexamined.

“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 elsewhere, what other meetings are going on.”

Activists in Jordan blamed rising smoking rates on political interference by tobacco companies to dampen adoption of the kinds of strict smokefree laws that have restricted cigarette use in the west, a trend they said is mirrored in the global south.

Alebshehy’s findings were published in a public health journal on Friday.

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