Cigarette firms prepared to throw millions into public relations battle

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The Independent Online

The tobacco industry is one of the richest and most powerful lobbies in the world, with its financial tentacles reaching from politics to the media, the law and academia.

Global cigarette companies, the daily target of stories about tobacco's links to cancer and other diseases, now give high priority to employing experienced in-house public relations teams. They are prepared to throw millions of pounds at defending their reputations, and this has made their battle with the cancer charities and anti-smoking campaigners appear like a David and Goliath contest.

As well as slick PR teams employed by companies such as BAT and Philip Morris, the tobacco firms employ experienced political lobbyists to curry favour in Westminster, Brussels and Geneva, where the World Health Organisation has its base.

Philip Morris has employed the services of Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm that has also worked for Monsanto and some of the world's most notorious polluters, including Exxon, responsible for the Exxon Valdez oil disaster.

The extent of the cigarette industry's influence reached the spotlight after Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One motor racing boss, paid £1m to the Labour Party, and motor racing, with the British Government's support, was given extra time to comply with an advertising ban.

Many politicians, including Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor of the exchequer who is now an executive at BAT, have taken the tobacco dollar. Academics such as Roger Scruton and scientists in the health field are employed to give intellectual weight to their arguments, while the best lawyers are on retainers to try to ensure that they succeed in court.

However, over the past 10 years the industry has faced an onslaught from the health lobby about the damaging health effects of tobacco, and has found it hard to outwit the small, agile health charities, which increasingly have the backing of politicians.

In the United States there have been a series of costly settlements designed to shut down claims from smokers whose health has been damaged.But these cases forced the release of millions of internal documents, which led to more damaging stories about how much tobacco companies knew of the health risks of smoking.

In Europe tobacco firms have succeeded in stalling plans for a ban on tobacco advertising, blocking a directive from Brussels in the courts.