Government riddled with tobacco lobbyists

5 minute read

Sax Institute researchers have mapped the traffic through the revolving door between the tobacco industry and the corridors of power.

We’ve just revealed the extent of the close relationship between tobacco lobbyists and government, in the first Australian study of its kind.

Our study, published today, found about half of people involved in tobacco lobbying held positions in Australian governments before or after working for the tobacco industry.

This “revolving door” between tobacco lobbyists and government is a key political lobbying mechanism to influence public health policy.

So we urgently need to strengthen the rules and legislation around lobbying if we are to avoid industry influencing policies on issues such as tobacco control and vaping.

What we did and what we found

We gathered information from sources including federal, state and territory government lobbyist registers, social networking platform LinkedIn, and Australian news media.

We identified 56 lobbyists representing tobacco companies (via lobbyist registers and archives) and another 73 current and former in-house tobacco lobbyists (via other means).

We found 48% of in-house tobacco company lobbyists and 55% of lobbyists acting on behalf of tobacco companies held positions in Australian state or federal governments before or after working for the tobacco industry.

Senior government roles included members of parliament, senators, chief or deputy chiefs of staff, and senior ministerial advisors.

Around half of the lobbyists had moved into or out of their government roles within a year of working for a tobacco company (56%) or as a lobbyist for one (48%).

We also documented how tobacco companies use third-party allies to indirectly lobby government – a form of lobbying that is poorly recorded on lobbyist registers and is not easily tracked.

For example, the Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association was created with funding from global tobacco company Philip Morris International and lobbied to weaken Australian vaping regulations.

Why is this a worry?

We’ve long suspected there has been a “revolving door” between government and the tobacco industry – whereby tobacco companies recruit people who have previously held senior government roles to lobby for them.

It’s a tactic common in the gambling, alcohol and food industries.

The aim is to learn about upcoming policies affecting their industries, and develop relationships with people of influence, with a view to shaping policy that favours their interests.

Our study, published today in the Sax Institute’s peer-reviewed journal Public Health Research and Practice, systematically catalogues for the first time how widespread this practice is.

Out of sight

The movement of key people between government and tobacco industry roles without adequate transparency provides potential opportunities to influence policymaking out of sight.

This can lead to delayed, weakened, or suppressed implementation of tobacco control and anti-vaping reforms.

In Australia, tobacco industry interference tactics largely hinge on the industry’s new product pipeline – e-cigarettes (vaping products).

Examples of industry lobbying efforts to legalise the retail sale of nicotine vaping products recently include lobbying the federal government through submissions to legislative reviews, participating in inquiry hearings, making political donations, meeting privately with parliamentarians, funding third parties to lobby on their behalf, and sending unsolicited letters to ministers.

There is no suggestion any individual or organisation acted illegally, contravened employment guidelines or principles, or otherwise acted improperly – including in the performance of lobbying duties.

However, the “revolving door” is important for tobacco companies as it provides opportunities to influence policymaking out of public sight.

Examples from overseas suggest the prospect of a lucrative future career in the private sector can be enough to influence decisions that favour industry while still in office.

This can potentially undermine the quality and integrity of Australia’s democratic system.

What can we do about it?

1. Greater public disclosure

There needs to be more extensive public disclosure of all tobacco company employees and lobbyists – acting directly or via third-party allies. This information should be added to existing government registers, and also include detailed updates of activities and meetings.

2. Enforce ‘cooling off’ periods

We need to extend and enforce “cooling off” periods – the minimum time required between switching from public to the private sector. These range from 12 to 18 months, depending on the role held in government. But our study showed these cooling off periods are not being enforced, and there are no serious sanctions.

3. Update and enforce the law

Transparency and integrity legislation must be updated and enforced. Adopting policies in line with international best practices, such as in Canada, to safeguard against the influence of tobacco companies in Australian policy making.

4. Recognise the ‘revolving door’

We need to recognise “revolving door” tactics as as part of the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The Australian government is a signator to this convention. It has committed to protecting public health from the vested interests of the tobacco industry by publishing guidance for public officials on interacting with the tobacco industry. However, lobbying through the “revolving door” is not explicitly recognised or outlined in this guidance.

This study was originally published by The Conversation.

Becky Freeman is an associate professor at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney. Christina Watts is a research fellow at The Daffodil Centre, University of Sydney. Melissa Jones and Kylie Lindorff were co-authors of the study.

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