Tobacco company attacked over its lobbying tactics

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The Independent Online

One of the world's biggest cigarette makers has employed a public relations firm that specialises in gathering inside information on anti-tobacco lobbying groups to try to weaken their campaigns.

Philip Morris, the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes, hired Mongoven Biscoe and Duchin, a PR firm based in Washington, to challenge the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, internal industry documents reveal. MBD has worked for RJ Reynolds, another big American cigarette manufacturer, in the past.

The convention was initiated in 1996 by the World Health Assembly, an association of 161 governments under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, and will provide legally binding guidelines for the control of the tobacco industry at an international level.

The convention is due to be presented in May 2003 but documents show that MBD advised Philip Morris in 1997 that if it could not delay the adoption of the convention it should instigate a co-ordinated strategy to make it as weak as possible.

A WHO expert committee published a report in July 2000 revealing that the tobacco industry had worked for years to discredit the WHO and subvert its programmes intended to curb smoking. The result was that the full impact of tax increases on cigarettes and restrictions on advertising had been diluted, it said.

Writing in Tobacco Control, published today, Stacy Carter of the Department of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Australia, says: "MBD has been working against the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control process for Philip Morris and advising [the company] on undermining the WHO in general."

As a strategy, MBD advises that "the first alternative to an onerous convention is to delay its crafting and adoption". It goes on to suggest that it "would be in the company's interest to have the treaty focus entirely on protecting children and leaving adult choice protected".

Since the election of President George Bush, America has become noticeably warmer towards the tobacco industry, Dr Carter says. "This is unsurprising in light of [Jack] Mongoven's [the head of MBD] watertight Republican links and the US's status as a tobacco exporter," she said. "MBD is not the only PR organisation which gathers intelligence on advocates. The difference is the distinctly unscientific realm of morality and conscience."

Details of the public relations tactics employed by the tobacco industry are the latest in a series of revelations about how the industry has tried to keep people smoking.

A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia unearthed documents last week from the 1970s showing that tobacco companies regarded the introduction of filter tips as a "cosmetic" improvement that would offer "an image of reassurance".

A study by the University of California in 2000 revealed the industry had tried to blur the risks from passive smoking by discrediting evidence gathered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The lengths to which "Big Tobacco" – the seven major US companies – would go to defend their interests was dramatised in the 2000 filmThe Insider, whose central image was of the heads of the seven companies testifying to Congress in 1994 that nicotine was not addictive.