A recent report by medical journalist Michael Woodhead in the health practitioner newsletter 6 minutes exposed how the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries are active members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful right-wing lobby group that opposes Australia’s introduction of cigarette plain packaging.

In the US, ALEC works closely with legislators to advance the interests of its corporate members and ensure laws favourable to America’s biggest corporations. Its members consist of legislators and the private sector, although 98% of its funding is from corporations, trade associations and corporate foundations.

Members of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board which provides input to “model legislation” include representatives of Altria (think Marlboro) and Reynolds American (Camel cigarettes) together with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Bayer and industry lobby group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. ALEC’s lobbying extends beyond the US through its international relations taskforce, co-chaired by a representative of Philip Morris International.

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ALEC has acted as a de facto front group for the tobacco industry in the US as part of a relationship dating back to 1979. It has been diligent in opposing regulatory restrictions and supporting strategies to improve public perceptions of tobacco companies.

ALEC initially wrote to the Australian government in October 2010 warning that the introduction of plain packaging would be inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under international trade laws. The letter contains textbook tobacco industry objections to plain packaging: it amounts to government seizure of trademarks; there is no evidence it will work; it will make counterfeiting easier.

The correspondence includes a resolution outlining ALEC’s opposition to plain packaging and intention to submit the resolution to “the governments of countries that consider enacting plain packaging regulations in the future”. ALEC also provided a similar submission to the government consultation on plain packaging in June 2011, with the added threat that plain packaging would drive up consumption through lower prices.

Given ALEC’s history and membership, its lobbying against plain packaging should come as no surprise to Australian pharmaceutical companies. However, shortly after the 6 minutes story was published, Lisa Maguire of GSK Australia posted in the comments section: “If ALEC is lobbying the Australian government as you have suggested, they are not doing this on behalf of GSK and we do not support it.”

GSK and Pfizer Australia distanced themselves from ALEC’s actions, with Pfizer stating: “With respect to the issue of plain packaging, Pfizer fully supports plain packaging in the spirit of preventing future generations of smokers and does not agree with the position taken by ALEC in this case.” GSK Australia stated: “If an organisation we are involved with adopts a public policy position that we do not agree with we do not participate in advocacy activity related to that subject. In some cases, such as this, we may actively lobby against the position of an organisation of which we are a member.”

While both companies say they support plain packaging, there’s no evidence of this on either of their websites — and certainly not “active lobbying” against the ALEC position.

A Google search of each company and various combinations of “smoking”, “Australia” and “plain packaging” doesn’t turn up much either, other than GSK attempting to block controls on its smoking cessation drug bupropion (Zyban), and aggressive marketing of smoking cessation products by Pfizer.

Both companies’ public statements on tobacco control tend to be framed in the context of informing smokers of the harms of smoking, encouraging quit attempts, and increasing access to smoking cessation therapies — prevention of uptake is barely mentioned. Of course, if plain packaging works as expected and the number of people taking up smoking decreases, the market for smoking cessation medications will also drop in coming decades.

ALEC is suffering in the PR stakes in the US at the moment; it has been widely criticised for what some consider its extremist agenda, with more than 30 organisations cutting ties, including some of America’s largest companies. GSK is facing its own challenges — it has just agreed to pay out $US3 billion in fines for illegally promoting several of its anti-depressant drugs.

A detailed report published last month about the activities of ALEC to create a “stealth legislature” in Pennsylvania shows how closely pharmaceutical companies will work with the tobacco industry and its representatives to achieve common goals (in this case GSK with Shook, Hardy and Bacon, a law firm well-known for representing big tobacco as well as many large pharmaceutical companies).

ALEC’s stance against plain packaging is entirely consistent with its goal of free markets and limited government. In health care, this means pushing policies that benefit pharmaceutical companies through reduced regulatory restrictions.

Meanwhile, in Australia the pharmaceutical industry stands to benefit from tens of millions of dollars of public money for smoking cessation medication through PBS subsidies; a market that can only exists as long as there are smokers.

*Marita Hefler is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and news editor for the BMJ journal Tobacco Control

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