Big Tobacco’s Little Favours

Cigarettes by curran.kelleher.

[First published in The Morning Star, 26/11/2012]

It’s a hard time to be a tobacco lobbyist in Britain.

Tobacco displays have been banned from supermarkets in England and Wales, with corner shops set to follow suit in 2015.

Imperial Tobacco’s lawyers are currently sweating away in London’s Supreme Court arguing that Scotland’s own plans for a display ban are outside its “legislative competence” – tobacco companies are pro-union, it seems.

And it’s only a matter of weeks now before both governments issue their responses to public consultation on forcing cigarettes and the like into plain packaging.

With all that on the horizon an honest spin doctor needs all the friends he can get. And thanks to some judicious donations, sponsorship deals and outright headhunting, you’re likely to see a whole host of them making the headlines in the coming months. So consider this a spotters’ guide to some of Big Tobacco’s little favours.

It’s impossible to overstate just how big Big Tobacco is.

Around one in five adults in Britain is a regular smoker, with England alone puffing through more than five-and-a-half million packs a day. While David Cameron expects the Olympics to boost the national economy by £13bn, the tobacco industry makes that amount in UK sales in a single year.

And thanks to nicotine-enhanced “customer loyalty,” in corner shops it outsells sweets and chocolates, soft drinks and newspapers combined.

It’s little surprise then that some shopkeepers will publicly oppose any moves to curb demand. But in almost every case, those earnest, ordinary shopkeepers you’ll see on the news have been media-trained and foisted on the public by a morass of tobacco-funded organisations – in some cases with campaigns actively run by tobacco industry lobbyists.

There are few better examples than when the BBC broadcast a segment on struggling shopkeeper Debbie Corris last January. Corris runs a tobacconist’s in Whitstable and feared cigarette smugglers in her area were behind declining sales.

“Counterfeit tobacco’s becoming a serious problem in this country, so instead of buying cigarettes from me at £6.50 you’ll go and buy them from a chap on the street in a carrier bag for £3.50,” she said.

Immediately after the anchor segued into a live interview with Christopher Ogden, introducing him as then-chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association (TMA).

Ogden “absolutely” agreed with Corris’s analysis – he could hardly have put it better himself. “In fact, the fundamental cause of the problem is the high tax regime in the UK.”

Health advocates say that point in itself is highly dubious – smuggling in Britain has both soared and plummeted over the last 15 years even as the over-the-counter price has risen at a steady pace. The World Bank considers price barriers one of the most effective ways to cut consumption.

But there was an even more glaring omission – not once did the BBC disclose that Corris from Whitstable was in fact a spokeswoman for the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, a lobby group explicitly managed and bankrolled by the man they were now interviewing.

Founded in 1982, its £120,000-a-year funding comes entirely from the TMA. It has no staff of its own, drawing instead on the association’s PR team.

Corris and all its other friendly faces are real shopkeepers, but the manufacturers call the shots – the alliance’s 26,000 “members” do not pay levies, elect their representatives or even vote on policy. They do sign up to a mailing list.

When approached Corris told the Morning Star she was not a paid spokeswoman, but confirmed that all expenses were covered by the alliance. She said she and other spokespeople met the association’s campaign manager Jonathan Hart to discuss messaging. Mr Hart “sent out surveys.”

But the manufacturers’ total control did not undermine her credibility as an independent voice, she said: “I’m just a spokesperson for the (alliance). How it’s run has no effect on me.”

In fact a 1983 presentation to a Washington PR workshop makes it clear just why the alliance’s membership is in name only:

“Early on we decided that it would be preferable to keep the alliance at arm’s length from (us) and the industry and with its own identity and address, to emphasise 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 PR agents Daniel J Edelman.”

This set-up is hardly unique. It’s a calculated strategy that the TMA’s members have pursued around the world to shift the debate away from public health.

In October 2010 the Australian news team Lateline obtained “a stack” of internal emails, invoices and contracts showing Imperial and British American Tobacco’s (BAT’s) Australian subsidiaries had ploughed a combined 3.2 million Australian dollars (more than £2m) into the “alliance of Australian retailers” the very same day it was incorporated.

And earlier that year independent journalist Keith Ng and I dug deep into New Zealand’s newly formed Association of Community Retailers – leading Imperial Tobacco to confess before a select committee that they had bankrolled the entire PR operation, courtesy of their long-time spin doctor Glenn Innwood.

But the Tobacco Retailers Alliance is just part of the picture. What makes the industry’s lobbying so effective is that it can count on a whole range of groups it has funded to chime in with what appears to be a broad consensus.

Just last week the National Federation of Retail Newsagents traipsed down to the House of Commons to launch its policy agenda for 2013. Chief among them the tobacco display ban and plain packaging: “A slap in the face for the responsible, licensed and tax-paying sector (which) will only serve to increase the illicit and unregulated tobacco sector.”

But the federation is “a puppet of the tobacco industry,” according to former president Colin Finch. Finch, who stepped down in 2007, told the Guardian last February he believed tobacco sponsorship had “poisoned” the federation’s code of ethics.

The Morning Star meanwhile pored through the organisation’s social calendar. In 2010 the federation’s annual knees-up granted Imperial Tobacco’s PR manager Iain Watkins a “fellowship award,” while the body’s own press officer Niki Haywood jetted off to Bangalore in India to speak at the Global Tobacco Networking Forum. (Interestingly, someone’s scrubbed her entry from the list of speakers since my original story last March, although you can still find her glowing bio in a webcrawler capture here).

In any case, just eight weeks after Finch’s allegations one of the federation’s Big Tobacco sponsor buckled. Chairman Richard Burrows was buttonholed at BAT’S AGM the very day after it had rejected Finch’s allegations point-blank.

But caught with an audience of attentive shareholders, Burrows curtly admitted it had bankrolled February’s aggressive email lobby of MPs in the federation’s name, urging them to abandon the display ban outlined in a white paper earlier that month.

Lobbyists Hume Brophy had warned of a “devastating effect on the small business sector,” signing the missive from the federation.

Yet by the time Barron learned of the deception it was already too late. The coalition had already redrafted the regulations to give newsagents a three-year grace period. Big Tobacco had convinced Parliament to tweak legislation in its favour as a direct result of footing the bills for the federation’s “brand.”

Then there’s the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), where all three members of the TMA – Imperial Tobacco, BAT and Japan Tobacco International (JTI) – directly pay £21,500 a year in “premier club” memberships, along with events sponsorship and other deals. It’s a similar set-up to the federation, although the ACS insists these projects are “entirely separate” to its lobbying work.

North of the border there’s the Scottish Grocers Federation, which receives nearly a tenth of its “supplier membership” dues from just three companies – Imperial Tobacco, BAT and Philip Morris International. Meanwhile their fellow lobbyists in the Scottish Wholesale Association also claim Imperial as a “supplier partner” and BAT and JTI – the TMA triumvirate – among their sponsors for this year’s conference.

Every single one of these organisations receives significant sums or sponsorship in kind from the tobacco industry each year, and every single one is on record as bitterly opposing both the banning of tobacco displays and the introduction of plain packaging.

They have identical arguments, even the same self-contradictions – that colourful packaging somehow makes no difference to uptake while simultaneously being vital to sales and sacrosanct intellectual property.

Some might say fair enough – that’s liberal democracy for you.

But when Big Tobacco is cutting the cheques, it only makes sense to ask who’s writing the playbook.


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