At first glance, it seemed like an innocent dinner among friends or colleagues. The group gathered at the Chez Francoise restaurant in Paris last Wednesday, where they sipped top-notch Bourgougne wine and dined on frog legs and veal. The group ended their meal with Cuban cigars according to French weekly Le Journal de Dimanche.
While it might have seemed like a nice celebratory luncheon, many are concerned about the timing of the meal considering the guests that attended. Just one week after Health Minister Marisol Touraine announced a new bill to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public, Soraya Zoueihid, French President of British American Tobacco hosted the €10,000 meal. Curiously, his guests were some important political figures.
Luncheon guests included several deputies and a senator: Andre Santini, Patrick Balkany, Francois Sauvadet, Jean-Claude Lenoir, Odile Saugues, and Dominique Bussereau. Gladeric Sabatier was also in attendance and he works within the finance ministry, acting as third in command over the customs administration that determines tobacco prices throughout the country.
With a major tobacco company hosting such an elaborate lunch for French politicians and lawmakers, many are left to wonder about the state’s relationship with big tobacco. After all, France has seen a lot of policy changes in the past few years, including major tax hikes on tobacco products and new requirements for plain packaging in some regions.
According to Le Journal de Minache, Zoueihid did mix in some business affairs during the lunch. He reportedly discussed tobacco regulations including the upcoming bill to ban e-cigarettes. He called for balance in making future decisions related to tobacco products. Interestingly, British American Tobacco also has a stake in the new bill banning e-cigs as it currently sells e-cigs and is even planning to launch a new line of e-cigarettes in the coming months.
The luncheon clearly contradicted France’s previous stance against tobacco lobbyists. In fact, France signed an initiative from the World Health Organization that addresses these kinds of meetings. This initiative says, “The state must guard against politicians being influenced by the interests of the tobacco industry.” However, this extravagant luncheon seemed to be an opportunity for British American Tobacco to influence politicians towards their objectives.
Luncheon attendee Odile Saugues defended the gathering, claiming that it was nothing more than an opportunity to dialogue about issues surrounding the tobacco industry. He told local reporters that “BAT maintains its relationships in order to weigh up and share ideas, but that doesn’t change anything. I vote in favor of all price increases (on tobacco products).”
The timing of the expensive lunch still leaves many people skeptical. While tobacco prices are continually increasing each year for the French public, an estimated 500,000 residents are using e-cigarettes as a more cost effective solution. Many chose e-cigarettes for use in public places where tobacco was not allowed. However, the upcoming e-cig ban would eliminate that possibility and potentially cause a substantial drop in sales for e-cig companies.
Is it possible that the €10,000 luncheon was just another example of tobacco lobbyists trying to get what they want from politicians? British American Tobacco certainly stands at risk for falling sales if the new bill banning e-cigarettes is passed. Do you think this luncheon was out of line?