Lobby groups representing convenience and grocery stores have refused to tell a Senate inquiry how much they receive in tobacco and vaping industry funding.
The failure to disclose industry funding – with the lobby groups saying they owe a duty of confidence over the information – follows public hearings into the public health (tobacco and other products) bill earlier in November and comes as concerns are raised about one lobby group having a parliamentary access pass.
If introduced, the reforms will see updated and improved graphic warnings added to tobacco packaging and included on individual cigarettes, and specific additives in tobacco and vaping products, like menthols, banned.
Neither the chief executive of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS), Theo Foukkare, or the chief executive of Master Grocers Australia (MGA), David Inall, disclosed the value of the funding their groups received from the vaping or tobacco industries, despite being asked to provide any such information in conflict-of-interest statements prior to attending.
The AACS represents convenience stores and petrol stations, while the MGA is the industry association for independent grocery and convenience stores. Both groups have corporate members including tobacco companies, and both groups supported tobacco industry campaigning against plain packaging reforms.
During the inquiry’s public hearings, Foukkare and Inall said proposed tobacco and vaping reforms would fuel the illicit markets, a claim rejected by health experts who gave evidence.
Foukkare also told the inquiry chair, Senator Marielle Smith, that the purpose of the hearing “is to talk about the bill, not the small amount of members that contribute to our organisations quite broadly”.
Smith responded: “I’m aware of the purpose of the hearing.” But she said conflict-of-interest disclosures are necessary, telling Foukkare to “provide it as soon as possible”. Senator David Pocock also asked the groups to provide answers around funding in questions on notice.
But the responses from Foukarre and Inall, now published on the inquiry website, state the information is commercial in confidence.
“MGA’s reputation is that of a trustworthy commercial partner and therefore due to third party commercial arrangements we are unable to disclose the nature of these agreements due to confidentiality expectations,” MGA’s answers state.
The MGA has a sponsored pass to access parliament house, the response said, but the MGA did not disclose who the sponsor is, stating, “MGA is uncertain whether it is lawfully permitted to disclose the information>”
In its response, AACS wrote funding information “is not relevant to the submission that AACS has made to the Senate Inquiry or Mr Foukkare’s appearance as a witness at that Inquiry”.
Co-chief executive of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health, Geraldine Mellet, whose organisation also gave evidence to the inquiry, said the failure of the AACS and MGA to disclose the amount of such funding was unacceptable given tobacco companies are known to fund groups to lobby against reforms.
“Commercial in confidence should not apply here to public health,” she said.
“It is of the utmost relevance that the Senate Committee have all the facts at their disposal to know the extent of their relationships and influence with industry and who’s really speaking. Without that, how can the Senate possibly consider their evidence?”
Mellet said the revelation that the MGA has a parliamentary pass means that “we have to redouble our efforts in Australia. We need to see who is lobbying our politicians, who is being given free passes as it were and how they are aligned with industry.”
Foukkare told Guardian Australia that the reason the details could not be disclosed was “due to the threats posed against lawful retailers and their staff from the illegal trade”.
“AACS has a responsibility to maintain confidentiality to manage against this risk for our membership,” he said.
Inall said the MGA “proactively disclosed in our opening statement to the inquiry that three tobacco companies were part of a larger group of corporate partners”.
“MGA does not disclose the quantum of the amount that different corporate partners contribute, regardless of whether they are in the tobacco industry or not,” he said.
On 16 November the World Health Organization launched a campaign which implores governments to do more to protect health policy from increased tobacco industry interference.
Pockock accused the groups of “a lack of respect for the Senate process and the principle of transparency that underpins our democracy”.
“The AACS and MGA both presented evidence that was very similar to the submissions provided by big tobacco, so there is a need to better understand the links between them,” he said.
“Dark money is a big problem in Australian politics and the refusal … to answer my questions about their funding by the tobacco industry highlights this problem.”
Pocock said more than 2,000 people had “unfettered access” to parliament “and we don’t know who they are”.
“The broader issue is of a complete lack of transparency around lobbying and who has 24/7 access to parliament house and its occupants, as well as who gave them that access.”