Hewitt clears BAT of cigarette smuggling

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The Independent Online

A four-year investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry into allegations that British American Tobacco (BAT) was involved in smuggling ended yesterday without any action against the company.

A four-year investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry into allegations that British American Tobacco (BAT) was involved in smuggling ended yesterday without any action against the company.

The tobacco giant, whose board includes the Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke, has been under scrutiny by the DTI since 2000. MPs on the Health Committee demanded the Government look into allegations that the company was involved in global smuggling. Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "The investigation has been completed. It has not uncovered material indicating a basis for launching a criminal investigation and the department does not propose to take any further action."

The information the DTI has gathered on BAT will remain confidential, a decision that has has provoked outrage from MPs and anti-smoking campaigners. David Hinchcliffe MP, the chairman of the Health Committee, yesterday asked for a full copy of the report, given the seriousness of the allegations. "I am asking urgently for a full copy of the report in view of the allegations and the fact that my committee called unanimously for this investigation to be carried out," he said. "A bald statement that the DTI 'has not uncovered material indicating a basis for launching a criminal investigation' is not the same as vindication." At the time of its report, the committee said those who perpetrated the allegations should publicly apologise for "slurring" BAT if the allegations proved to be false.

Mr Hinchcliffe pointed to the fact that BAT has not taken libel action against The Guardian newspaper, in which the allegations were first aired. A spokeswoman for BAT said it had no plans to sue The Guardian as it wanted to draw a line under the affair. Deborah Arnott, the director of the health campaigning organisation ASH, said it was a "scandal" to keep the report secret. She wants the DTI to consider whether there is any evidence to take a civil action.

Martin Broughton, the chairman of BAT, said: "We have always maintained that our companies have acted legally and are delighted to see this matter at an end. We work actively with governments and customs and excise authorities around the world to help them eliminate smuggling - which at its root is caused by tax differentials, weak border controls and import restrictions."

BAT and other tobacco companies stand accused in the US courts of withholding information regarding health risks associated with smoking.

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