Research

Big business uses ‘Better Regulation’ to undermine health policy

Powerful global businesses are now using ‘Better Regulation’ to undermine public health, according to a new report from the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

British American Tobacco, who lobbied for ‘Better Regulation’ in Europe, is one of four global tobacco companies who swamped the policy making process for “plain” packaging in the UK with sub-standard evidence.

Legislation was finally passed earlier this year to introduce standardised tobacco packaging. However, this decision came after a lengthy 3-year policy process. During this time, over 500,000 children – a key target group for standardised packaging policy - are estimated to have started smoking.

In the latest IPR briefing, released Monday 12 October, researchers from the University’s Department for Health call into question the UK’s use of ‘Better Regulation’ – a framework established to reduce and improve regulation by consulting with stakeholders about new laws and using the evidence stakeholders supply to inform policy making decisions via impact assessments.

Highlighting serious flaws in the current system, the researchers at Bath suggest vested interests can capitalise on the current process in order to create confusion, cast doubt or delay important public health policies across products such as tobacco, alcohol, sugar-sweetened foods and soft drinks, which contribute to high rates of non-communicable disease, such as cancers, stroke and heart disease in the UK[1].   They call on the government to do more to make the process more transparent and open, with a greater emphasis on questioning the quality and validity of evidence supplied.

Reviewing evidence submitted by the tobacco industry to the 2012 consultation for the introduction of standardised packaging for cigarettes, the IPR report highlights how the tobacco industry used the Better Regulation system in its attempts to delay and derail one such policy.

The report points to how submissions to the consultation from the tobacco industry: relied heavily on industry commissioned evidence or opinions of third parties linked to the industry; misquoted and encouraged the government and public to question evidence supporting the legislation; failed to include evidence showing the central importance of packaging for tobacco products; and did not consistently nor transparently disclose industry links with the evidence cited. For example, the ‘evidence’ supplied by Big Tobacco to support its claims that standard packs would increase illicit tobacco and have negative economic impacts was very poor quality and in 91% of cases the industry failed to declare its links to the evidence. These claims, which were not supported by any independent peer-reviewed evidence became particular stumbling blocks for the policy.

In the case of tobacco, Better Regulation is also being used by tobacco companies to overcome constraints on their access to policymakers required under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a binding global agreement.  This is currently under scrutiny in Europe where the Ombudsman has criticised the Commission over its failure to record and publish minutes of meetings with tobacco companies and their lawyers during negotiations over the Tobacco Products Directive.[2]

Principal investigator Professor Anna Gilmore explains: “The case of standardised packaging in the UK highlights the threat that Better Regulation can pose to public health policy.

“Under the guise of supporting evidence based policy and good governance, the tobacco industry is instead using the opportunities presented by Better Regulation  to undermine and derail life-saving legislation, by misquoting evidence and swamping the policy process with their own mis-leading research.

“The tobacco industry has, over decades, lied about the addictiveness of its product, about the health impacts of its products and about the impacts of legislation. The idea that allowing them to present their own evidence will somehow improve regulation is ludicrous.

“Whilst there is a requirement within the principles of Better Regulation to prioritise business interests and reduce regulatory costs, policy-makers need to fundamentally re-evaluate whether these should apply in a public health context.”

Lead author, Dr Jenny Hatchard adds: “Rather than reducing administrative burdens, Better Regulation has merely shifted these burdens from businesses onto civil servants, slowing down and potentially diluting health policy making at the expense of taxpayers' pockets and health.

“In order to meet the requirements of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the underlying principles of Better Regulation need to be reviewed.  In particular, policy makers need to drive up the quality and transparency of evidence they receive in public consultations, so that well-informed decisions can be taken in the public interest in a timely way.”

To access a copy of the latest report see http://www.bath.ac.uk/ipr/pdf/policy-briefs/tobacco-plain-packaging.pdf

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[1] World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe, 2015, The European Health Report 2015: Targets and beyond – Reaching new frontiers in evidence, http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/284750/EHR_High_EN_WEB.pdf?ua=1

[2] Recommendation of the European Ombudsman in the inquiry into complaint 852/2014/LP against the European Commission regarding its compliance with the Tobacco Control Convention, http://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/cases/draftrecommendation.faces/en/61021/html.bookmark

Related media coverage

The Observer - 'Revealed: how ‘big tobacco’ used EU rules to win health delay'

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