British American Tobacco (BAT) has been branded “a disgrace” for its part in a UK city’s vaping project, which has seen their e-cigarettes being dispensed as stop smoking aids.
In a report by the UK’s Observer newspaper, it has been revealed in emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that the tobacco giant and Birmingham City Council have been piloting a project together to exclusively promote its vape products to smokers wanting to quit tobacco.
Health campaigners say the tie-in breaches established local government guidelines, which regulate the role of tobacco companies in public health and promote transparency.
Under the scheme, pharmacists have been providing smokers keen to quit tobacco with a BAT e-cigarette starter kit paid for by the council. The kits contain an ePen, which works only with BAT products.
While the council refused to present the trial project as a partnership, according to The Observer, emails reveal the billion-dollar firm went on to approach a string of local authorities across the UK for similar business within the public sector, claiming “we have been working in partnership with Birmingham city council”.
A meeting with one of the councils was also requested by a BAT employee by email, with an attached copy of a presentation prepared by Birmingham that “summarises their trial project and its positive results and includes reasons why they opted to work with BAT”. The council has now said it is urgently reviewing the scheme to ensure it complies with UK government rules and guidelines.
The deal has raised fresh concerns over big tobacco’s attempts to use their vape products as a way of cultivating new relationships within the public sector.
Philip Morris International, the maker of Marlboro, came under fire earlier this year for offering to help NHS staff quit smoking to help mark the service’s 70th anniversary.
The company sparked anger among doctors, MPs and health campaigners for offering their vape products for free to medical staff as part of a “disgraceful” publicity stunt.
Steve Brine, public health minister, said of the British American Tobacco and Birmingham City Council vaping project: “Stop-smoking services exist to save lives – it is a disgrace that British American Tobacco is seeking to exploit them for its own profit. I am committed to working towards a smoke-free generation – and councils play a vital role in this – but we have a duty to protect our public health services from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry.”
Deborah Arnott chief executive of the charity Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) said: “Birmingham signed the local government declaration on tobacco control, promising to protect its public health policies from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry.
“That should have prevented any involvement with BAT on the e-cigarette pilot, which BAT has misrepresented as a ‘partnership’ in its efforts to gain access to other local authorities up and down the country. Birmingham’s experience is a salutary warning to all local authorities that any engagement with tobacco manufacturers should be avoided unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
A BAT spokesman said: “We understand the pilot scheme has been a huge success, with many participants making a switch from cigarettes, which is great news for them, public health and in line with government health policy.”
But Neil W Schluger, senior adviser for science at Vital Strategies, a global health organisation, said public bodies needed to recognise big tobacco’s use of e-cigarettes as a “Trojan horse”.
He explained: “Despite a billion-dollar PR campaign and a raft of new products, these companies have no interest in a ‘smoke free future’ or the health of their customers.
“Their one motivation is profit and this means delaying, derailing and undermining strong tobacco control policies that deter smoking and impede the industry from hooking a new generation on addictive combustible and smokeless products.”
Becky Pollard, Birmingham city’s interim director of public health, said: “We remain committed to assessing the potential for e-cigarettes in our smoking cessation work but are now urgently reviewing this pilot scheme to ensure that in future this work complies with our commitments under the local government declaration on tobacco control and the framework convention on tobacco control.”