Former MP under fire

MATT STEWART
Last updated 18:50 05/09/2014

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The boss of the country's main tobacco, alcohol and junk food lobby is under fire again, standing accused by a group of health experts of a conflict of interest and undermining public health.

A group of 33 senior public health experts today made public a letter sent to Prime Minister John Key sent last week calling for a probe into apparent serious conflicts of interest on the board of the Health Promotion Agency.

Former National MP, and agency board member, Katherine Rich is chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council, which lobbies for the alcohol, tobacco and grocery food industries.

Rich was appointed to the HPA board under a National government. She has been at the centre of controversy after allegations arising in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics that the Food and Grocery Council paid right-wing attack blogger Cameron Slater to write favourable stories about its clients.

The group's accusation comes just a day after Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague called for Rich's resignation.

''Katherine Rich, Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater have all been involved in a systematic undermining of health promotion in New Zealand. She cannot tenably remain on the board of that organisation,'' Hague told Radio New Zealand. 

In response to the letter Rich said she had no intention of resigning from the agency.

''I have not been involved in any campaign that has undermined the public health of Kiwis, and I find any such suggestion very offensive. I have personally been involved in many campaigns that promote the public health of Kiwis.

''New Zealand is a country that allows freedom of expression and these people are entitled to their views. I put my heart and soul into playing my part in the effective governance of the HPA, which successfully delivers a multitude of great programmes dealing with immunisation, rheumatic fever, sun safety, alcohol harm minimisation, and smoking cessation,'' Rich said.  

Professor Richard Edwards from the University of Otago was one of the 33 who signed the letter and said Rich's appointment to the HPA board was potentially a major conflict of interest. 

"We wrote to the Prime Minister more than a week ago raising this as a very serious concern and asked that he officially investigates these accusations.'

'The group cited the Crown Entities Act 2004, which requires Board members to act with honesty and integrity and not to pursue their interests at the expense of the entity's interests. 

"If these accusations are investigated and proven to be true, then Ms Rich would clearly be in breach of these rules and her position as a Board member of the Health Promotion Agency would be untenable. The public needs to have confidence in government processes and New Zealand's strong track record of good governance should not be put at risk,'' Edwards said.

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Victoria University health and physical education lecturer Barrie Gordon was not involved in the group but was outraged when Rich was originally appointed to the HPA board.

''It's incomprehensible that the government would put the chief lobbyist for tobacco, alcohol and junk food on the board - the government need to explain to the public how this could happen. There must have been a million other people who could do the job properly,'' Gordon said.

- The Dominion Post

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