Magazine article The Spectator

Even a 60-a-Day Person Might Feel Qualms about Ken Clarke Selling Tobacco to Vietnamese Children

Magazine article The Spectator

Even a 60-a-Day Person Might Feel Qualms about Ken Clarke Selling Tobacco to Vietnamese Children

Article excerpt

How we want Ken to win! We so long for him that we try to convince ourselves that his visceral Europhilia is not really a problem. There he stands in the Institute of Directors fluently making his case, worldly and obviously competent. He is that rather rare thing among modern Tories, a completely normal chap.

I don't want to spoil the party, but can I enter a caveat? It is not about Europe. The arguments there have been well trodden, and will continue to be so. No, it has to do with his visit to Vietnam last week as nonexecutive deputy chairman of British American Tobacco. With a few exceptions, the moral aspects of this case have barely been examined by the press. The liberal media have been especially indulgent, for reasons not hard to divine. Ken Clarke is their man - the sensible Tory who will neutralise the Eurosceptics, and possibly tear the party apart, so rendering it unelectable for as long as we can see. If lain Duncan Smith or David Davis or even Michael Portillo had been caught flogging cigarettes in the Third World, the liberal press would not have been so forgiving.

My position is not that of an anti-smoker. If you want to smoke in my house, fine. Or over lunch. I may even join you once in a blue moon. But I begin to draw the line when rich companies, their markets in the West contracting, start moving into Third World countries. We all know that their main target group is children, who are almost bound to be less well informed than you and me about the dangers of smoking. The Saigon Times newspaper recently cited World Heath Organisation research that claimed as many as 10 per cent of Vietnam's population - 7.3 million people would die young from smoking-related diseases. I imagine that the WHO is considerably over-egging its forecasts, as all such organisations tend to do, but it is undoubtedly the case that smoking is on the increase in Vietnam. And smoking, as we know, is dangerous - probably considerably more so than most Vietnamese have been made aware.

This is the trade which the man who would be leader of the Tory party is encouraging. Don't you, even if you are a 60-a-day person, share my misgivings? Mr Clarke's defence - as mounted to the Today programme's Sue MacGregor, one of the few journalists to tax him - is that British American Tobacco sells only top-ofthe-range cigarettes in Vietnam. This is disingenuous. Vietnam is an extremely poor country. BAT would not sell cigarettes there if they were unaffordable. The company is in Vietnam because the country offers an expanding market and, whether Mr Clarke admits it or not, that market is largely made up of relatively ill-educated young people.

Last week, as I say, Mr Clarke enjoyed an almost incredibly easy ride in the press. The Daily Telegraph, by temperament at the forefront of the pro-smoking lobby, had a slight dig at him in an editorial. Our own Frank Johnson, who is far from being authoritarian in this or any other matter, chided Mr Clarke in the same paper. On Monday David Leigh of the Guardian joined the fray, citing compelling evidence concerning BAT's activities in the Third World. Apart from Sue MacGregor, whom I have mentioned, that is about it so far. Sir Jeremiah Paxman, QC, obligingly steered around the controversial aspects of the subject when he interviewed Mr Clarke on BBC 2's Newsnight on Tuesday evening.

The case against Mr Clarke is not that he has been doing anything wicked. …

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