Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn has hit back at criticism directed at him for accepting hospitality from a tobacco firm.
The MP attended last year’s Chelsea Flower Show in London at the invitation of Japan Tobacco International, maker of brands including Benson and Hedges, Camel, Winston and Silk Cut.
I’ll stand up for Essentra workersSTEPHEN HEPBURN
He was condemned by anti-smoking campaigners for accepting the hospitality package, then voting against plans to introduce plain cigarette packaging.
Mr Hepburn has defended his actions for the first time since coming under fire last week.
He says he regards as his duty to stand up for workers in his constituency, including the 240 employed at the cigarette filter manufacturer Essentra Filter Products’ Shaftesbury Avenue factory in Jarrow.
The MP said he was fully supportive of Labour’s proposed tax on the tobacco industry to pay for more doctors and nurses, but he says he makes no apologies for backing staff at Essentra, formerly known as Filtrona and, before that, Cigarette Components.
Though he voted in favour of the ban on smoking in public places several years ago, he dismissed calls to make plain packaging for cigarettes compulsory as “barmy” and “counter-productive”.
He said: “In recent months, I have visited Essentra on the Bede Trading Estate. Although not as big as it once was, the firm provides 240 jobs and is regarded as a decent employer.
“I have always been supportive of its growth plans.
“These jobs are invaluable when unemployment is a curse, and I make no apologies for standing up for both a local company and South Tyneside as a great place to do business.
“I supported Labour’s proposed tax on the tobacco industry to hire more NHS doctors and nurses, but I think it’s barmy to force all cigarettes to be sold in the same plain packs.
“I know the harm to health caused by smoking – that’s why I voted for the pub ban – yet as long as people buy cigarettes, I’ll stand up for Essentra’s workers.”