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Tobacco firm argued against plain packaging in meeting with UK government

By Ross Hawkins
Political correspondent, BBC News

image captionPlain packaging of cigarettes was introduced in Australia last December

The tobacco firm Philip Morris International (PMI) told government officials in January that it was too early to decide whether to follow the plain packaging policy in Australia.

The Department of Health released the information following a Freedom of Information request.

The publication of details of the meeting had been delayed to now because of discussions with PMI, it said.

Ministers last week postponed a decision on plain cigarette packaging.

The government says it wants to wait until it has seen more evidence from Australia, where plain packets were introduced in December last year in an effort to cut smoking.

'Limited evidence'

The meeting between officials and PMI was highlighted during testy exchanges in the House of Commons about the alleged influence of the prime minister's election guru Lynton Crosby.

PMI confirmed to the Times on Saturday that the London branch of Mr Crosby's company advises Philip Morris in the UK.

The minutes of the meeting state: "PMI said that there is limited evidence from Australia as to what the effect of standardised packaging so far, largely due to the short period of time since its introduction.

"PMI noted that, with many other factors to consider, eight weeks (at the time of the meeting) was too soon to draw from sales data whether fluctuations may be due to the introduction of standardised packaging."

Speaking in the Commons, Labour's shadow health minister Diane Abbott said: "Isn't it the truth that the government is trying to cover its tracks about its relationship with Lynton Crosby and its clients and isn't it the truth that when it comes to the decision to drop plain packets effectively for this parliament all roads lead back to Number 10 and Lynton Crosby?"

Liberal Democrat backbencher John Pugh asked: "Is this high evidential threshold set for plain packaging proposal going to be applied right across government legislation or only when there are lobbyists involved?"

But health minister Anna Soubry said the government was waiting to see how things developed in Australia. "Good laws are based on good sound evidence," she said. She denied the government was "in the pockets" of big tobacco firms and wealthy lobbyists.

The government has previously released, after a Freedom of Information request, details of meetings with other tobacco firms.

A Department of Health official stressed the meetings had been called not to discuss what the government's policy should be, but to gather evidence to produce an impact assessment of standardised packaging.

Minutes of the PMI meeting said plain packaging would push consumers to cheaper brands and illicit cigarettes.

The company provided copies of five reports it had commissioned on the potential impact of the policy.

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