Plain packaging: Big Tobacco prepares for ‘bare-knuckle fight’ over ban

Andy Rowell reveals the tactics of an industry desperate to head off new rules on packaging

Cigarette manufacturers are gearing up to attack a landmark report into the health benefits of plain packaging for cigarettes, due to be published this week. The review, written by the leading paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler, will influence whether the Government presses ahead with plain packaging, which is designed to discourage the next generation from smoking.

As packaging is seen as one of the factors that influences the young to smoke, Australia introduced 15 months ago drab olive green packets with larger, more graphic health warnings. Tobacco industry commentators fear a similar move in the UK could “spell disaster”. One analyst has predicted a “bare-knuckle fight from the industry”.

Last week, the tobacco manufacturers were accused of “desperate” attempts to head off the regulatory threat. The makers of Marlboro, Philip Morris International (PMI), warned the UK government that the Australian experiment had failed. Professor Mike Daube from Curtin University in Perth, accused PMI of using “incomplete and misleading data”.

The latest warnings are a continuation of a decades-long campaign by tobacco companies to derail public health legislation. Leaked documents from PMI show the extent of the sophisticated lobbying and media campaign undertaken by the industry to “ensure” that the Government does not introduce plain packaging.

“Tobacco industry whistle-blowers have revealed the underhand use of third parties, front groups and lobbyists to try to prevent new regulations for tobacco,” argued Deborah Arnott from the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash).

The reasoning is that third parties, such as retailers, business groups and think-tanks are perceived as independent, with greater credibility, and therefore have a greater chance of being believed. It is a pervasive tactic in lobbying.

These third parties have been used to carry tobacco’s message in the press. PMI’s media strategy to ensure “plain packaging is not adopted in the UK” targeted “key decision makers”, including MPs, civil servants and the business elite. An internal PMI spreadsheet details how more than 100 MPs were singled out. An “influencers map” identified which politicians, think-tanks, business groups and government departments were in favour and which against.

The industry’s central message is that plain packaging will lead to an explosion of illicit cigarettes in Britain, despite overwhelming evidence of the industry’s complicity in smuggling its own products. The companies placed misleading stories in the national and local press, leading to headlines such as The Sun’s “Fag packet ban ‘boosts terror’”.

National newspapers such as the FT and the Telegraph were deemed supportive of the industry. The Guardian and The Independent were not. Regional newspapers were also targeted in strategically important cities. One of the tobacco industry’s key third party “media messengers”, according to the leaked documents, is Will O’Reilly, a retired Metropolitan Police officer. Mr O’Reilly has featured in local newspapers as an expert on tobacco smuggling. Sometimes his PMI payments are outlined, sometimes not.

Other messengers identified by PMI are the influential campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the latter having received tens of thousands of pounds of tobacco money. The BBC, in particular, has been heavily criticised for airing the IEA’s views without disclosing its links to tobacco.

The leaked documents also reveal how tobacco companies set out to distort the official government consultation into plain packaging. PMI saw “potential” in using submissions from think-tanks, retail groups, unions and smokers themselves to add weight to its case. British American Tobacco (BAT) was going to use an “engagement force” of retailers and the “smokers’ rights group” Forest to get between 200,000 and 300,000 individual submissions to the consultation. Japan Tobacco International, makers of Silk Cut, intended to use business and retail organisations as fronts, as well using its sales force to target MPs. It boasted of having “good political mapping”.

Forest, predominately funded by the tobacco industry, launched a campaign called Hands Off Our Packs and hired a marketing firm to employ several hundred canvassers in dozens of locations to garner signatures to be submitted to the consultation. Their canvassing tactics have been called into question, including where signatures were forged or canvassers misrepresented how plain packaging works. Forest has condemned these incidents, saying they were “isolated”.

The wider industry campaign also included many of the dark arts of lobbying, including economic threats, the use of questionable data and smear campaigns. Critics of the industry have been lambasted as fascists and Nazis. The Dragons’ Den star and anti-smoking advocate Duncan Bannatyne has been compared to Hitler. Tobacco companies deny they are behind online abuse.

The companies’ evidence to the Government’s inquiry was criticised by Bath University academics as “highly misleading” and based on the “misuse and misrepresentation of published evidence”. A multimillion-pound advertising campaign to garner support for the industry was also found to be misleading, having breached the Advertising Standards Authority’s codes.

In July 2013, when the Government announced it would wait to see what happened in Australia before pressing ahead, it repeated another central argument outlined in the leaked  PMI documents. The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston tweeted that the only winners were Big Tobacco, but Hands Off Our Packs claimed a victory for “ordinary people”.

But the issue became politically toxic after it was disclosed that David Cameron’s political strategist Lynton Crosby had Philip Morris as a client. Faced with a growing rebellion in the Lords, Mr Cameron asked Sir Cyril to review the health evidence for plain packaging. Whether Mr Cameron goes ahead will depend on the resulting report, which, it is widely predicted, the industry will now try to discredit. Packaging is all the industry has left to market its product. One Philip Morris document admits: “When you don’t have anything else – our packaging is our marketing.”

Andy Rowell is co-author of A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, published by Bodley Head. A freelance writer, he is also a part-time research fellow at Bath University.

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