Secret website pushes clubbers towards tobacco

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British American Tobacco has covertly set up an internet site designed to lure young people into clubs and bars that promote its cigarette brands.

The revelations will cause further embarrassment to Ken Clarke, deputy chairman of BAT, who has already found himself caught up in controversial allegations that the firm is involved in cigarette smuggling.

A leaked memo seen by The Independent on Sunday reveals that BAT has created at an initial cost of £2.5m in an attempt to sell more of its cigarettes to people under 30.

The site, which makes no mention of the tobacco giant, encourages tourists to visit clubs and restaurants which sell and promote BAT products. The tobacco industry has been forced to find new marketing tools in the face of ever stricter laws on cigarette advertising. Headed Project Horeca, the memo stresses the importance of the website appearing independent and unconnected to BAT. "Any adverse news articles from trade or consumer press may prove damaging," states the memo.

The document, which was leaked to Ash, the anti-smoking group, says: "Project Horeca [standing for hotels, restaurants, cafes] is a website which will become the main source for any information on trendy bars, restaurants and hotels for consumers globally.

"Horeca delivers a tool which will allow BAT to become the preferred supplier... and guarantee distribution of our strategic brands within the key outlets. This should result in increased market share there among ASU30 [adult smokers under 30]."

John Connolly, spokesman for Ash, said: "This website is just plain deceitful. It deliberately goes out of its way to hide the fact it is from BAT."

David Hinchliffe, chairman of the Commons health select committee, said: "This shows the increasingly devious ways tobacco companies encourage young people and, I would argue, children to take up smoking. It is very disappointing that Ken Clarke, who has been in a good position to influence health policy, is associated with a product that is the biggest, avoidable cause of death in this and other countries." launched earlier in the summer as a clubbing, drinking and eating guide to Europe. It currently provides entertainment information for Belgium and Poland – two countries with some of the toughest cigarette advertising restrictions in Europe – with expansion to the rest of Europe under consideration.

The website's domain name is registered to CG Ventures while the site makes no mention of its connection to BAT. But CG Ventures, The IoS has discovered, is a subsidiary of BAT, based at the company's headquarters in central London. BAT is the world's second biggest tobacco company, with 15 per cent of the world market. The company, which sold £3.6bn of cigarettes in Europe last year, generating £329m profit, is currently under investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry over allegations that it orchestrated and organised smuggling.

Mr Connolly said: "The site claims to give independent advice on where to go in all these cities. But when people go to the clubs they will be a target for BAT's products." The clubs will heavily promote such brands as Lucky Strike, Winfield and 555, claims Ash, once people are lured there.

The memo states: "More restrictive tobacco legislation reduces dramatically the communication possibilities with end consumers. Strong distribution and communication opportunities in the Horeca channel will be crucial to drive brand growth among strategic target audience."

A BAT spokeswoman said: "The Citygobo site does not promote or advertise any tobacco brands or products whatsoever. It is simply a nightlife site. The aim of Citygobo is to create the best web-based nightlife guide available."

She said the website would "strengthen our business relationship" with nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and cafes, which pointed out the spokeswoman, sell not only BAT brands but also cigarettes from rival manufacturers. "Ash will obviously claim the website has a promotional function and that is why we are doing this – but that is not correct. It is simply a service for our customers."