A UK ambassador took part in the opening ceremony of a Jordanian cigarette factory part-owned by British American Tobacco (BAT) and praised the new facility in a televised interview, in the latest example of British diplomats breaching strict guidelines against mixing with the tobacco industry overseas.
The envoy stood at the ribbon as it was cut and later appeared in promotional material on the tobacco company’s website, but no record of his presence at the event was kept by the British embassy in Amman because the event was not considered a “formal meeting”.
It was discovered later by a researcher who monitors Arabic-language media – and who waged a year-long freedom of information (FOI) campaign to have the Foreign Office confirm it.
The 2019 incident, which the ambassador said was an honest mistake, is part of a pattern of British officials appearing to promote the interests of big tobacco in developing countries, in contrast to the situation at home, where the UK is considered a world leader in restricting interactions between the government and cigarette companies.
Smoking rates in the Middle East have grown rapidly over the past decades, just as cigarette use has been declining in Europe and the US. The Guardian revealed in 2020 that Jordan’s tobacco consumption rates were the highest ever recorded anywhere by a World Health Organization survey.
The opening of the factory by the Yemeni cigarette manufacturer Kamaran, about a third of which is owned by BAT, was reported in a Yemeni newspaper, which noted that the event was attended by several Arab ambassadors as well as the then British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron.
“I thought this might be a mistake,” said Raouf Alebshehy, from the tobacco control research group at the University of Bath, who discovered the article.
Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) guidelines strictly prohibit diplomats from attending events sponsored by tobacco companies, noting specifically that the ban would include, for example, “the official opening of a UK tobacco factory overseas”.
Further research confirmed that not only had Aron attended the event, but he had given a Yemen TV interview saying he believed the factory would be a valuable investment, both for BAT and the Yemeni economy.
The UK is a signatory to a World Health Organization treaty that obliges it to restrict interaction between government officials and tobacco companies only to what is necessary to regulate its products.
Alebshehy lodged an FOI request with the Foreign Office seeking more details of the diplomat’s involvement in the event, and when they responded months later, the factory opening was not mentioned.
He appealed to the information commissioner’s office, which had received acknowledgment that Aron had indeed attended the event but said the embassy in Amman had “no formal record” of him doing so, because it only kept details of “formal meetings and not receptions/launch events such as this”.
Aron, who has since left the Foreign Office, told the Guardian he had made an error in attending the event and that he did so out of courtesy to the Yemeni business community. “In retrospect, I accept it was a mistake and had no intention whatsoever in promoting the tobacco company,” he said.
The Foreign Office has regularly been criticised in the past for appearing to use its influence to assist BAT’s overseas businesses. The former high commissioner to Bangladesh intervened in 2017 to help BAT in a tax dispute with the government. In 2015, the high commissioner to Pakistan attended a lobbying meeting between BAT and the country’s finance ministry.
The same year, Foreign Office staff were seconded to work in BAT offices in Hungary, while in 2020, British diplomats in Pakistan were found to have attended the launch of a BAT nicotine pouch.
“Our ambassadors regularly engage with the private sector in both a formal and informal capacity,” the FCDO said on Sunday. It also reiterated what it told the information commissioner – that it did not record the event because it was not considered a formal engagement.
Alebshehy said the ambassador’s presence at the factory in Jordan may have been an oversight, but the fact that it went unrecorded by the embassy raised questions over how many other interactions with tobacco companies in poorer countries are going unscrutinised.
“It is extremely difficult [to track these interactions] because, as you see in this incident, the ambassador was speaking in Arabic, it was reported in Arabic media. I’m an Arabic speaker, so I picked it up, but in other circumstances it wouldn’t be as easy,” he said.
“We don’t know what’s happening in other places, what other meetings are happening.”
Campaigners in Jordan blamed the increased smoking rates on political interference by tobacco companies to blunt the adoption of the kinds of stringent anti-tobacco laws that have curbed cigarette use in the west, a trend they said was mirrored across the global south.
Alebshehy’s findings were published in a public-health journal on Friday.