A Tory MP called Brian Binley has written an article suggesting that plain cigarette packs – which the House of Commons voted for yesterday – will help Isis. His argument is superficially plausible but fundamentally bonkers. In other words, it’s a conspiracy theory.
Here are the dots that Binley has joined. There’s truth in all of these points.
• Terrorists have made money out of tobacco smuggling. Though Binley only gives us chapter and verse on the IRA, operating in the ‘bandit country’ of Northern Ireland.
• ‘Gangs and terror groups’ who smuggle tobacco and alcohol also smuggle ‘drugs, arms and people’. True. Some detail would have been nice, though.
• ‘Data coming out of Australia suggest that the illicit trade there has jumped significantly, with some illicit cigarette brands overtaking legitimate ones.’ Yes, some data do suggest that. The fact that the studies have been funded by the tobacco industry doesn’t invalidate them. But, still, Binley could have mentioned that detail.
• Binley writes: ‘Professor Louise Shelley, an international terror expert, has written extensively about how terror groups such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and IS have turned to other crimes to fund their activities.’ Fine. But how how much money do Islamists make from the manufacture of ready-rolled cigarettes? And to what extent does the switch to plain packaging boost that income? There’s not even a hint of an answer to these questions.
• ‘[Plain packaging] will act like Viagra to the UK’s £24 billion-a-year criminal economy as it creates the perfect storm for a flourishing market in illicit tobacco, whose proceeds may well end up funding IS and their barbaric acts in Syria and Iraq.’ My emphasis. I’ve spent many years ploughing through books by conspiracy theorists and if you removed the words ‘may well’ together with ‘could have’, ‘arguably’ etc they’d be thin volumes indeed.
One final thing is troubling me. Binley implies that plain packaging is a gift to Isis. He also says: ‘Many of my colleagues who oppose this policy did not even bother to vote, because the result was a foregone conclusion.’ But if the policy favours Isis, then not bothering to vote isn’t an option, however heavily the cards are stacked against you. Registering your opposition is a matter of honour. Finley should be blasting his fellow Tory MPs for their nonchalant attitude towards the defence of the realm.
It doesn’t add up. But that’s the thing about conspiracy theories. They never do.