US free market group tries to halt sales of cigarettes in plain packets in UK

Alec, organisation that funds Tea Party members, moves to derail UK government’s proposals

A powerful US lobbying group that bankrolls climate change sceptics and leading members of the Tea Party is mobilising British opposition against plans to sell cigarettes in plain packs.

As the UK government considers the proposals, it has emerged the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), an organisation sponsored by big tobacco and other corporate interests, is playing a key role in trying to scupper them.

Supporters of the plans say they will deter young people from smoking. But opponents say there is little evidence this is the case and warn that generic packs will encourage counterfeiting.

Alec, which is heavily supported by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire oil baron brothers, has launched a sophisticated global lobbying campaign against the plan.

Alec, which proclaims its “belief in the power of free markets and limited government to propel economic growth”, has warned countries looking to impose plain packaging that they will be violating intellectual property provisions laid down by the World Trade Organisation, opening themselves to legal challenges.

It is targeting the UK, where the government has recently pushed the deadline for its consultation on plain packaging back by a month until the end of August as lobby groups on both sides of the debate make their submissions.

Karla Jones, Alec’s taskforce director, briefed members of its international taskforce at a luxury retreat that such a move threatened major business interests. Jones told those attending: “Among the countries considering plain packaging bills are Canada, the UK and Australia, and if passed, plain packaging regulations could effectively deprive corporations of what is often their most valuable asset, their brand, trademark and/or logo.”

Alec has also written to the Australian government, which intends to introduce plain packaging later this year, saying 2,000 state legislators, representing all 50 US states, “as well as 101 congressional alumni and over 250 companies and public policy associations” oppose the plan.

The organisation is seeking to convince politicians that the move would increase smoking. Alec warns in a submission to governments considering the plan: “Studies have shown that increased availability of generic cigarettes drives up cigarette consumption. As would be expected from their price, generic cigarettes appeal most to the poor, elderly and most dependent smokers. This proposal, then, will exploit those who can least afford to smoke and those who suffer most from smoking.”

Alec also persuaded politicians from around the world to back a trade resolution attacking the European Union ban on snus, a moist smokeless tobacco product that comes in fruit flavours and is targeted at younger consumers.

The organisation’s attempts to influence the debate outside its native US has angered health campaigners. “Alec’s free-market rhetoric may work in the US but it won’t wash here in the UK,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash). “The tobacco industry and its lobbyists have money to burn, and they might as well just set fire to it as their campaign against plain packs is going nowhere. Their legal case is weak and the evidence in support of plain packaging is strong.”

Losing their brand identity would be a blow for cigarette companies, which are fighting the proposal tooth and nail.

British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris, a major supporter of Alec, have launched high court challenges against the Australian laws, saying they infringe trademark rights. The tobacco companies have placed a series of adverts in the British media, including the Observer.

In recent months, concerns about some of Alec’s activities have seen a number of its high-profile corporate sponsors resign their membership. The exodus has thrust the Koch brothers into the limelight. The two are reputed to bankroll the Tea Party via a series of trusts, although both deny attending any of its events. According to Greenpeace USA, the Koch brothers have channelled almost $62m (£40m) “to climate change-denial front groups that are working to delay policies and regulations aimed at stopping global warming”.

Alec has enjoyed close links with the Atlantic Bridge, the defunct charity chaired by former Tory defence secretary Liam Fox, which sought to foster links between conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. It was dismantled last year after criticism from the Charity Commission of its aims and operations.

Alec did not return calls.


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