Annual rises to the tobacco excise tax have been criticised for using smokers as a “political punching bag” for tax hikes which did not reduce smoking rates. Photo: Getty Images

A right-wing lobbying group which has railed against cigarette tax increases and plain packaging laws in New Zealand counts a tobacco giant among its corporate funders.

The NZ Taxpayers’ Union has not disclosed its financial support from tobacco companies in its reports or press releases, with one public health academic calling on it to be more transparent about its donors.

The Guardian identified the relationship between the Taxpayers’ Union and British American Tobacco as part of its series on “the huge damage of the tobacco epidemic … and the industry behind it”.

In an investigation into the ties between “free-market thinktanks” and the tobacco industry, the Taxpayers’ Union was identified as being supported by multinational firm British American Tobacco.

A British American Tobacco spokesman told Newsroom the company had been financially supporting the Taxpayers’ Union for three years, paying “a standard annual corporate membership fee”.

“We, like many other companies, support like-minded organisations on issues that are important to us and our consumers,” the spokesman said.

The company did not disclose the size of the fee it paid. The Taxpayers’ Union website offers a range of donation options from $25 to $2500 but does not state the cost of a corporate membership.

According to the organisation’s financial statements for 2016 – the most recent on file – it received just over $81,000 in donations and a further $70,000 in membership subscriptions.

In 2015, it received over $185,000 in donations and only $11,000 in subscriptions.

‘Stock up’ on ciggies

The Taxpayers’ Union has repeatedly criticised annual rises to the tobacco excise tax, arguing smokers had become a “political punching bag” for tax hikes which did not reduce smoking rates.

In a December 2015 press release, the organisation called on smokers to “stock up” on cigarettes before the next year’s excise tax increase took effect.

The Taxpayers’ Union also opposed the introduction of plain packaging laws, with executive director Jordan Williams accusing MPs of backing an initiative that would encourage “an international trade claim that will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, for something that doesn’t even work to reduce smoking”.

The organisation’s Clear the Air campaign called for the “sensible regulation of smoke-free products” such as vaping and e-cigarettes.

Tobacco companies have taken a large stake in the e-cigarette market, with some critics raising concerns about their motivations and the potential use of e-cigarette products to rebrand smoking’s image and drive people back to tobacco.

British American Tobacco owns vaping product Vype, and was criticised for its marketing tactics after holding free music events in New Zealand last year with cheap alcohol and giveaways of new products.

None of the Taxpayers’ Union press releases or reports appear to include a disclaimer about its relationship with British American Tobacco.

In a 2015 report on tobacco taxes, Williams said: “Here at the Taxpayers’ Union we are no defenders of ‘Big Tobacco’ or its lobbyists. But among our thousands of members and supporters there are people who smoke and pay considerable tax for the same.”

‘Tobacco companies are not philanthropists’

University of Otago public health and marketing professor Janet Hoek told Newsroom the tobacco industry had a history of developing “front groups” and funding organisations to influence public policy, including the 2010 backing of a New Zealand retail lobby group by Imperial Tobacco.

“Tobacco companies are not philanthropists, they’re not giving money because they’re hoping to generate democratic debate and more informed public policy – they’re giving money because they want an outcome that suits their corporate interests.”

Hoek said the Taxpayers’ Union needed to disclose its ties to British American Tobacco when publishing research or press releases so the public was aware of its possible conflict.

“Otherwise there’s a likelihood that people will see the group as putting out independent opinions, whereas clearly the relationship they have with these corporates – and that would go for any corporate – can influence the line of argument that they’re developing.”

“We have actually thousands of donors, some of whom are businesses, but our positions and the campaigns that we undertake are not dictated by those donors – we’d refuse any funding that came with obligations that would distract from our core mission.”

Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke told Newsroom the organisation would not elaborate on its relationship with British American Tobacco due to its policy of “protecting the privacy of our individual donors”, but denied the money influenced its views.

“We have actually thousands of donors, some of whom are businesses, but our positions and the campaigns that we undertake are not dictated by those donors – we’d refuse any funding that came with obligations that would distract from our core mission.”

Three-quarters of the Taxpayers’ Union’s income came from individuals, with the rest from businesses, he said.

The organisation had campaigned against tobacco taxes since its inception in 2013 due to the regressive effect they had on smokers and their families, and would continue to do so.

Disclosure ‘distortionary’

Houlbrooke said the organisation did not disclose potential conflicts of interest for its research and reports as it did not want to “get into the game of essentially outing our donors”.

However, it was unlikely the Taxpayers’ Union would now declare its financial relationship with British American Tobacco even though the company had outed itself.

“We have so many donors, if we started singling out any particular donor that would actually start distorting people’s perspectives of our work and distort people’s perceptions of our funding and distort people’s perceptions of our relationships.”

The public could have faith in the independence and quality of its research on “the basis of the quality of the argument and the evidence contained within it”, he said.

Houlbrooke acknowledged the Taxpayers’ Union had been critical of conflicts of interest in the public service, but said public entities were held to “a special standard” given their taxpayer-funded status.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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