Plain packaging: a toxic tangle worthy of a lawyer

Chasm between what lawyers and public consider the right thing has been highlighted

Arthur Cox’s involvement in one and a half – or possibly even two – sides of the plain-tobacco-packaging issue has allowed James Reilly to look decisive and tough. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Arthur Cox’s involvement in one and a half – or possibly even two – sides of the plain-tobacco-packaging issue has allowed James Reilly to look decisive and tough. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

It is a singular achievement these days to make Minister for Children James Reilly look good, but Arthur Cox has managed it. The law firm’s involvement in one and a half – or possibly even two – sides of the plain-tobacco-packaging issue has allowed the Minister to look decisive and tough. He has asked the child and family agency Tulsa to review its relationship with the firm.

Cox acts for the agency as well as for Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which is threatening to take the Government to court if it proceeds with legislation aimed at, among other things, discouraging children from smoking. So far, Cox has kept its own counsel, but it must be feeling pretty sore. It is not the only law firm in Ireland representing “big tobacco” and neither is it the only law firm to act also for State agencies with potentially conflicting goals.

It is, however, the firm that is in the public spotlight, in part because of the more aggressive strategy its clients have adopted compared with their peers.

Cox is also a very high-profile firm with some form in this area, having taken stick a few years ago for having multiple roles in the bank bailout. Then, as now, the firm was satisfied that its own internal procedures for dealing with conflicts ensured that all its clients’ interests were served. The firm’s continued success seemed to offer proof that this was the case.

But then, as now, the chasm between what lawyers and public consider the right thing to do has been highlighted. Technically, the firm’s work for JTI does not create a conflict of interest with its lucrative role as adviser to the Health Service Executive because the plain-packaging legislation is being prepared by James Reilly’s Department of Children. But as Minister for Health Leo Varadkar put it simply: “I do think it would reflect well on Arthur Cox if they didn’t represent tobacco companies.”

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