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Tobacco ties undermine Taxpayers’ Union

News that the Taxpayers’ Union receives money from a tobacco multinational is not entirely shocking. But while it can take donations from whomever it pleases, its failure to declare its conflicts fatally undermines its credibility, Sam Sachdeva writes.

“Here at the Taxpayers’ Union, we are no defenders of ‘Big Tobacco’ or its lobbyists.”

Jordan Williams’ words, in the foreword to a 2016 report on the impact of tobacco taxes, have a certain irony in light of his organisation’s financial ties to British American Tobacco.

In many ways, news of the tobacco giant’s “corporate membership” of the Taxpayers’ Union (for an undisclosed annual fee) should come as little surprise.

Since its inception in 2013, Williams’ organisation has consistently opposed measures designed to regulate or reduce the use of tobacco, such as the plain packaging law and the annual increases to excise tax.

Add in its ‘Clear the Air’ campaign for lighter regulation of vaping and other e-cigarette products - a sector in which cigarette companies themselves now have a large stake - and the alignment of beliefs seems clear.

Does that mean that Williams and company are mere stooges for hire, on offer to the highest corporate bidder?

Not necessarily (although the group’s most vociferous critics would surely beg to differ).

Egregious lack of transparency

British American Tobacco may pay its dues to the Taxpayers’ Union not to ensure it would take the party line against tobacco controls, but because it already shared those views as a philosophically “free market” organisation.

And the group's argument about the regressive impact of tobacco taxes - that they impact the poor disproportionately - is one which carries some weight.

There would be value to some voters in an organisation which lived up to the Taxpayers’ Union motto of “lower taxes, less waste, more transparency”.

However, it’s in the area of transparency where the organisation most egregiously fails.

None of the numerous press releases and reports on tobacco put out by the Taxpayers’ Union make even a passing reference to the group’s funding from a cigarette manufacturer.

A Taxpayers’ Union spokesman pooh-poohed the suggestion of disclosing conflicts of interest, claiming doing so would “distort people’s perceptions of our work” given its many donors.

That’s an argument that doesn’t hold water, given the high standards to which the organisation is willing to hold politicians (take its criticism of Associate Transport Minister Julie-Anne Genter for the awarding of transport contracts to her partner's consultancy firm, despite her lack of involvement in the decision-making process).

The organisation’s spokesman suggested taxpayer-funded entities had to be held to “a special standard” - but surely a group seeking to enhance government transparency should be purer than pure.

Credibility up in smoke?

In that 2016 tobacco report, Williams wrote of the impetus for the work: “Among our thousands of members and supporters there are people who smoke and pay considerable tax for the same.”

Was it those thousands of supporters who had been heard, or the single, loud voice of a tobacco manufacturer adversely affected by tax hikes?

Is the group’s criticism of a sugar tax influenced by funding from a fizzy drink manufacturer? Is its opposition to alcohol tax hikes influenced by industry money?

It’s usually unfair to cast such aspersions without evidence - but given that long-held rumours about the organisation's tobacco ties have been proven true, where there is smoke there may be fire.

With the Taxpayers’ Union digging in over the secrecy of its donors, media and the public will struggle to take its work at face value when there could be industry money funding (at least in part) any piece of research.

While only time will tell, its credibility may have suffered fatal damage.

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