Where There’s Smoke: Tracing The UK Tobacco Lobby

[First published in the Morning Star, 23/03/2011]

Last fortnight’s release of the Government’s tobacco control plan saw a flurry of press releases and talking heads; everyone from local shop owners to libertine smoking enthusiasts. But behind the headlines lies a carefully coordinated and well-funded network of lobbyists and public relations experts who all draw their paycheques, at least in part, from the same trio of multinational tobacco companies.

At present the tobacco control plan (available here) centres on two issues: a ban on point-of-sale displays from next year and potentially a ban on the colourful cartons themselves. But the Government has said it will first explore the “competition, trade and legal implications, and the likely impact on the illicit tobacco market” – and it’s here where the industry lobbyists hopes to win over public opinion.

Noone doubts that tobacco is big business in Britain: around 7 million packets are sold each day, generating nearly £13b a year. In the convenience store sector it outsells confectionary, soft drinks and newspapers combined. To put it another way, nearly one in three adults in the UK are regular smokers — and the market doesn’t look to be drying up anytime soon.

But that hasn’t stopped a groundswell of opposition to the controls, warning of Nanny States and huge burdens on small business. Nevermind that advertising consumption is not a human right, or that suppliers usually provide the displays free of charge — these groups have saturated the national media with their spirited defence of visible tobacco consumption as the foundation of a free and fair society.

Yet for all their public profile – on the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, in the Daily Mail and Daily Express and countless drive-time radio bulletins – it’s exceedingly rare that their links to the tobacco industry are raised on-air.

So who are the main players? The international pro-tobacco network is a very tangled web indeed, but it tends to replicate the same strategies from country to country: while lobbyists at a legislative level focus on trade law and intellectual property, the friendly face presented to the public is typically an amalgam of local shopkeepers and civil liberties advocates to shift the debate away from public health.

In the UK these are the Tobacco Manufacters’ Association, FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. Let’s deal with them one by one.

The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association is the most straightforward: formerly known as the Tobacco Advisory Council, it represents Gallaher (Mayfair, Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut), Imperial Tobacco (Richmond, Drum, Lambert & Butler) and British American Tobacco (Pall Mall, Rothmans, Dunhill), who collectively control around 90% of the UK market. Its chief executive Chris Ogden frequently appears on television on their behalf — and often alongside their subsidiary, the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance.

Founded in 1982, its funding – £120,000 a year – comes entirely from the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association. Its sole full-time staff member, Katherine Graham, is employed by the Association and operates out of the Association’s headquarters, where she “informally” reports to Ogden. Its spokespeople are real shopkeepers but are selected by Graham: its members do not pay levies, elect its leaders or vote on policy. In fact a 1983 presentation to a Washington PR workshop makes it clear they were not to be members at all:

“Early on we decided that it would be preferable to keep the Alliance at arms length from TAC and the industry and with its own identity and address, to emphasize to supporters, as far as is practical, that it had a degree of independence. Thus while the industry determines policy and provides the funds, the day to day management is the responsibility of our P.R. agents Daniel J. Edelman.”

“[Stakeholders] also welcomed the concept of Alliance ‘supporters’ rather than ‘members’ which would have required their blanket agreement on policies and views. Such agreement would have been virtually impossible in view of the diversity of the various groups.”

When contacted for this article Graham said members “vote in a way” through surveys and she met annually with the group’s unelected regional representatives. Graham decided policy based on the representatives’ suggestions but despite 26,000 members the organisation was “not big enough to vote”.

The Alliance’s benevolent dictatorship stands in stark contrast to the Association of Convenience Stores, where regular members vote but the industry can’t — even if it cuts the cheques. A spokesman confirmed that Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International (which owns Gallaher) each paid £21,500 a year in “Premier Club” membership dues plus events sponsorship and other arrangements, but added that this was “entirely separate” to the Association’s lobbying work. While this represents just a fraction of the Association’s income – £400,000 from regular members alone – it nonetheless shows just how much Big Tobacco is willing to spend on its friends.

***

Friends like FOREST, a “smokers’ rights” group which “represents adults who choose to smoke tobacco and non-smoking adults who are tolerant of other people smoking”. It’s anyone’s guess how representative it really is though, as director Simon Clark says allowing members to vote on policy would be “an administrative nightmare”: “People can register their support for our work and make donations, but we are primarily a political and media lobby group.”

To be fair, FOREST makes it clear on its website that most of its funding comes from industry groups. But what it doesn’t say is just how much money there is: the group’s director Simon Clark confessed at a health select committee hearing back in 2000 that FOREST operated on around a quarter of a million pounds per year, 96 percent directly from Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco. But then as now, Clark insisted his organisation was wholly independent.

“It was originally set up in 1979 by a former Battle of Britain pilot. The story goes that he was standing on Reading station puffing away at his pipe and some lady walked up to him and told him to put it out. He basically decided to set up an organisation. It was not set up by the industry, but independently by this chap, Christopher Foxley-Norris, and a few of his pals.”

There was indeed a Christopher Foxley-Norris. But thanks to the University of California’s Legacy Tobacco Documents Library we now know Forest’s real origins — a 1979 meeting of the Public Relations subcommittee of the Tobacco Advisory Council, now the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association.

“Mr Knowles said that a recent conversation with Geoffrey Evans indicated that ‘Forest’ would now not be launched before mid-June… Mr Sanguinetti thought that TAC should query the use of the name ‘Forest’ in view of the unfortunate connotations that could be attached – forest fires, backwoodsmen, etc. After discussion it was agreed that the Chairman should write to Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris to let him know of our misgivings and propose a more straightforward title such as ‘Freedom to Smoke’.”

It continues:

“Members discussed how TAC and the Companies should respond to press enquiries following the organisation’s launch. The Chairman said he thought that TAC should reply that while they were aware of its existence [they] had no connection with the new organisation and that enquiries should be directed to member companies. Mr Mulholland proposed that his company should reply that Forest was an independent organisation, that it seemed a good idea for it to support smokers and that the company had provided financial support and nothing more.”

***

Last is the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. As with the ACS, it campaigns on a range of issues — but as Guardian reporters found last month, the relationship with sponsors runs far deeper. Ex-president Colin Finch alleged the Federation was “a puppet” for the tobacco industry, while another described a “don’t ask” policy for campaign funding.

The Federation itself refused a detailed explanation but said only 3% of their income came from the industry. Still, other questions remain unanswered: What did Imperial Tobacco’s public relations manager Iain Watkins do to win the Federation’s “Fellowship Award” in October? And why was the Federation’s own public relations manager Niki Haywood invited to speak at last year’s Global Tobacco Networking Forum in India? Neither the Federation nor Haywood responded to requests for comment.

***

Whatever your politics, the Coalition’s tobacco controls are a difficult and courageous move. But the tobacco industry has been waging psychological warfare in Britain for decades, and the battle is far from over.

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