Political opponents of Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn have questioned his decision to accept a “freebie” from a tobacco firm.
The MP attended last year’s Chelsea Flower Show, in London, at the invitation of Japan Tobacco Industries – whose brands include Camel, Winston, Benson and Hedges and Silk Cut.
The MP came under fire from anti-smoking campaigners last week for accepting the hospitality package, then voting against plans to introduce plain cigarette packaging.
Mr Hepburn’s constituency has one of the worst rates of smoking-related deaths in the country, and he has been unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts by the Gazette.
Today his stance was labelled “morally wrong” by UKIP’s Steve Harrison, who finished runner-up to Mr Hepburn in the Jarrow constituency at the General Election earlier this month.
Former South Tyneside councillor Mr Harrison said: “Once you start taking freebies it puts you in a difficult position and I think it is morally wrong.
Once you start taking freebies it puts you in a difficult position, and I think it is morally wrong.Steve Harrison, ex-councillor
“But, the people voted him in, and perhaps he feels he has the remit from them to make these decisions.
“I stopped smoking 25 years ago and I know the damage that it does.”
Cigarette filter manufacturer Essentra Filtering Products is based in Shaftesbury Avenue, Jarrow, employing 240 people there.
Formerly Filtrona – and prior to that Cigarette Components – the factory was visited by Mr Hepburn in January.
David Herbert, who stood as the Green Party’s candidate in Jarrow, said: “When you do get involved with these lobby groups it does create a conflict of interest.
“If Mr Hepburn feels he has a duty to represent the interests of those people in his constituency who work in the industry, it is spurious.
“Smoking puts a huge strain on the NHS, and we need to end smoking altogether.”
He added: “Instead of workers being employed in the production of cigarettes, we could have a policy of insulating homes in South Tyneside, thereby helping to reduce fuel costs and providing jobs.”
Mr Hepburn declared the Chelsea Flower Show gift on the register of members’ interests.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said jobs should not be put before a danger to health.
Mrs Arnott said she believed that Mr Hepburn “did not have to accept hospitality in order to act on behalf of employees in his constituency”, and nor do any other MPs.
She added: “The jobs are almost non-existent now.
“He should look at the number of people dying every year compared with the number of jobs.”
A spokesperson for Essentra said: “We are a company in Mr Hepburn’s constituency, and we do employ a number of staff who live locally.
“Mr Hepburn has been supportive of the company.”