Obscured by the smoke – British American Tobacco’s deathly lobbying agenda in the EU

British American Tobacco (BAT) spent more than €700,000 lobbying the EU last year, up to four times as much as the company declared on the EU’s register of interest representatives, new research by Corporate Europe Observatory has revealed. This report argues that BAT’s hidden lobbying activities, which are clearly not in the public interest, should be exposed to public scrutiny.

As the world’s number two tobacco company, European multinational British American Tobacco (BAT) has been lobbying the EU institutions on a number of fronts in recent years. Fighting against the harmonisation of cigarette duty, battling against smoking bans in public places and campaigning to lift the EU ban on a ‘smokeless’ tobacco product called ‘snus’ were all high on the company’s agenda. At the same time, BAT has tried to establish itself as a leader in corporate social responsibility (CSR) to try to appear as a ‘legitimate’ stakeholder to EU lawmakers and to maintain dialogue with them in a general context of suspicion against the tobacco industry.

As this report shows, the most important part of this lobbying job has been done ‘undercover’, using two main channels. Firstly, BAT hides behind a myriad of associations which are used as ‘vehicles’ for EU lobbying. Some are Brussels-based, others are in member states or even in non-EU countries. Due to loopholes in EU lobbying transparency rules and a lack of enforcement, the amount of money paid to such lobbying vehicles is not available publicly. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has found that as well as the official amount registered on the Commission’s voluntary register of interest representatives (€150,000-200,000), BAT contributed twice as much again to three main lobbying bodies (CECCM, ESTA, ESTOC). Some of the names of BAT-funded lobby groups and front groups active in Brussels are not even disclosed on the register, let alone the amounts paid. CEO has discovered that at least €527,000 was paid to associations lobbying on BAT’s behalf, increasing its lobbying budget fourfold to €677,000-727,000.

Secondly, anticipating new international rules hostile to pro-tobacco advocacy, BAT has innovated in the lobbying field by using ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) as a lobbying tool. In 2006-2007, under the banner of a so-called ‘EU stakeholder dialogue’, the company obtained direct access to at least 42 EU policymakers, targeting them with political messages directly related to pieces of legislation being discussed in Brussels. Arguing that it was ‘CSR’ and not ‘lobbying’, BAT refused to disclose the budget of this two-year campaign involving in-house personnel, two external lobbying firms, one communications agency and one auditing firm. It can however be assumed that this campaign involved considerable expenditure.

CEO estimates that BAT’s real lobbying budget could in fact be at least five times higher than the amount disclosed on the voluntary register. This is a very conservative estimate that does not include the lobbying budgets spent in each member state to influence EU decisions.

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