We just revealed the extent of the close relationship between tobacco lobbyists and government, in the first Australian study of its kind.
our study, published todayfound that about half of people involved in tobacco lobbying held positions in Australian governments before or after working for the tobacco industry.
This “revolving doorbetween tobacco lobbyists and the government is an important political lobbying mechanism for influencing public health policy.
So we urgently need to tighten the rules and legislation around lobbying if we want to prevent the industry from influencing policy on issues such as tobacco control and vaping.
Read more: The revolving door: why politicians become lobbyists and lobbyists become politicians
What we did and what we found
We gathered information from sources including federal, state and territorial government lobbyist registers, the social networking platform LinkedIn and Australian news media.
We identified 56 lobbyists representing tobacco companies (through lobbyist registries and archives) and an additional 73 current and former internal tobacco lobbyists (through other means).
We found that 48% of domestic tobacco company lobbyists and 55% of lobbyists acting on behalf of tobacco companies held positions with the Australian state or federal government before or after working for the tobacco industry.
Senior government positions include members of parliament, senators, chiefs of staff or deputy chiefs of staff, and senior ministerial advisers.
About half of lobbyists had moved into or out of their government role within a year of working for a tobacco company (56%) or as a lobbyist for a tobacco company (48%).
We also documented how tobacco companies use outside allies to indirectly lobby the government – a form of lobbying that is poorly recorded in lobbyist registries and not easily tracked.
For example, the Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association was founded with funding of the global tobacco company Philip Morris International and lobbied to weaken Australian vaping regulations.
Read more: Politicians turning lobbyists could be bad for Australians’ health
Why is this a concern?
We have long suspected that there has been a “revolving door” between the government and the tobacco industry, with tobacco companies recruiting people who previously held senior government positions to lobby for them.
It’s a common tactic in the gambling, alcohol and food industries.
The goal is to learn about upcoming policies that affect their industries, and develop relationships with influential people, with a view to shaping policies that serve their interests.
Our study, published today in the peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute Public health research and practicemakes a systematic inventory for the first time of how widespread this practice is.
Read more: How to deal with fossil fuel lobbying and its growing influence in Australian politics
Out of sight
The movement of key people between the roles of government and the tobacco industry without sufficient transparency presents potential opportunities to influence policy making unnoticed.
This can lead to delayed, weakened or stifled implementation of tobacco control and anti-vaping reforms.
In Australia, the tobacco industry’s meddling tactics hinge largely on the industry’s new product pipeline: e-cigarettes (vaping products).
Examples of industry lobbying efforts to legalize the retail of nicotine vaping products recently including lobbying the federal government through submissions to legislative scrutinyparticipate in investigative hearings, make political donations, meet privately with MPs, fund third parties to lobby on their behalf, and sending unsolicited letters to ministers.
There is no suggestion that any person or organization has acted illegally, violated employment guidelines or principles, or otherwise acted improperly, including in the performance of lobbying duties.
However, the “revolving door” is important to tobacco companies because it offers opportunities to influence policy making out of public view.
Examples from abroad suggest that the prospect of a lucrative future career in the private sector may be enough to influence decisions that favor industry while still in office.
This is possible undermine the quality and integrity of Australia’s democratic system.
Read more: Lobby rules are vital to any functioning democracy – it’s about time NZ got some
What can we do about it?
1. Greater Disclosure
There needs to be more extensive disclosure of all tobacco company employees and lobbyists – either directly or through outside allies. This information should be added to existing government registers and should also include detailed updates of activities and meetings
2. Enforce cooling-off periods
We need to extend and maintain “cooling-off periods” – the minimum time required between the transition from the public to the private sector. These range from 12 to 18 months, depending on the government role. But our investigation found that these cooling-off periods are not adhered to and there are no serious sanctions.
3. Update and enforce the law
Transparency and integrity legislation must be updated and enforced. Adoption of policies in accordance with international best practices, like in Canadato protect against the influence of tobacco companies on Australian policy making.
4. Recognize the ‘revolving door’
We must recognize “revolving door” tactics as part of implementing the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The Australian Government is a signatory to this treaty. It is committed to protecting public health from the vested interests of the tobacco industry by publishing guidelines for officials on interaction with the tobacco industry. However, lobbying through the “revolving door” is not explicitly acknowledged or described in this guidance.
We would like to acknowledge our co-authors of the study, Melissa Jones and Kylie Lindorff.