The latest instance of British diplomats flouting stringent rules against mingling with the tobacco industry abroad was a UK ambassador who attended the opening ceremony of a Jordanian cigarette factory that is partially owned by British American Tobacco (BAT) and gave a televised interview in which he praised the new facility.
The British embassy in Amman did not keep a record of the ambassador’s attendance at the event since it was not an “official meeting,” despite the fact that the envoy stood there as the ribbon was cut and afterward appeared in promotional content on the cigarette company’s website.
A researcher who keeps track of Arabic-language media made the discovery later, and she launched a year-long freedom of information (FOI) battle to get the Foreign Office to corroborate it.
In contrast to the situation at home, where the UK is regarded as a global leader in limiting interactions between the government and cigarette companies, the 2019 incident, which the ambassador said was an honest mistake, is part of a pattern in which British officials appear to promote the interests of big tobacco in developing countries.
Over the past few decades, smoking rates in the Middle East have risen sharply whereas they have decreased in Europe and the US. The highest cigarette usage rates ever recorded globally, according to a World Health Organization survey, were in Jordan, The Guardian reported in 2020.
In a Yemeni publication, it was mentioned that Michael Aron, the former British ambassador to Yemen, as well as other Arab ambassadors, attended the inauguration of the facility by Yemeni cigarette producer Kamaran, of which BAT owns around one-third.
Raouf Alebshehy from the University of Bath’s tobacco control research division, who found the piece, stated, “I felt this may be a mistake.
Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) standards explicitly restrict ambassadors from attending events sponsored by tobacco businesses, stressing particularly that the ban would encompass, for example, “the official inauguration of a UK tobacco facility overseas”.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Aron had not only attended the occasion but had also stated in a Yemeni TV interview that he thought the factory would be a wise investment for BAT and the local economy.
As a party to a World Health Organization agreement, the UK is required to limit interactions between public servants and tobacco firms to what is required to control their products.
When the Foreign Office responded to Alebshehy’s FOI request for further information about the diplomat’s participation in the event months later, the plant inauguration was not mentioned.
He appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which had received acknowledgment that Aron had indeed attended the event but stated the embassy in Amman had “no official record” of him doing so because it only retained information of “formal meetings and not receptions/launch events such as this”.
Aron, who has now left the Foreign Office, said to the Guardian that attending the dinner was a mistake but that he did it out of respect for the Yemeni business sector. I now acknowledge that it was a mistake, and I had absolutely no intention of endorsing the cigarette industry, he added.
In the past, the Foreign Office has frequently come under fire for appearing to use its power to support BAT’s international enterprises. In 2017, the previous Bangladeshi high commissioner stepped in to assist BAT in a tax battle with the government. The Pakistani high commissioner joined BAT and the finance ministry for a lobbying meeting in 2015.
In the same year, employees from the Foreign Office were transferred to the BAT headquarters in Hungary, and in 2020, it was discovered that British diplomats in Pakistan had gone to the BAT nicotine pouch launch.
In both an official and informal role, “our ambassadors constantly engage with the commercial sector,” the FCDO stated on Sunday. Moreover, it reaffirmed what it had previously informed the information commissioner, namely that it had not recorded the occasion since it did not qualify as a formal engagement.
Alebshehy argued that although the ambassador’s attendance at the Jordanian factory may have been an oversight, the fact that the embassy failed to record it raised concerns about how many other interactions with tobacco companies in underdeveloped nations were taking place without being closely scrutinized.
“As you can see in this episode, the ambassador was speaking in Arabic, and it was covered in Arabic media. It is really difficult [to follow these exchanges]. I learned it because I speak Arabic, but it wouldn’t be as simple in other situations,” he remarked.
“We have no idea what other meetings or events are taking place elsewhere.”
Campaigners in Jordan claimed that the rise in smoking rates was the result of political meddling by the tobacco industry to prevent the adoption of the kind of strict anti-tobacco regulations that have reduced cigarette use in the west. They claimed that this trend was shared by countries in the global south.