Tobacco Research

The latest updates from the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group

Tagged: front groups

500,000 against plain packaging? The figures just don’t add up.

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📥  Industry tactics, Public policy

Plain packaging for cigarettes would require cigarettes to be sold in packets of a standard colour and shape with brand names written in a standardised font and pictorial health warnings covering a substantial proportion of the packet. The public consultation on plain packaging in the UK came to a close on the 10th August 2012. A few days later the Tobacco Manufacturer’s Association (TMA) publicly claimed that ‘half a million oppose plain packaging.' There are three significant issues with this figure:

1. Conjecture

In the misleadingly titled press release ‘half a million oppose plain packaging’, the TMA included a disclaimer that in fact the final figure was unknown as the Department of Health (to whom the consultation submissions were made) had not yet informed them of the number. “We await final confirmation of the number of responses from the DoH.” Nevertheless in his blog, the director of Forest, (an industry-funded pro-smokers’ rights organisation), Simon Clark, said that there were ‘at least 500,000 in opposition.’ Forest ran the Hands Off Our Packs (HOOPs) campaign.

2. Double Counting

The TMA release stated that 236,033 of the ‘half a million in opposition’ were signatures to the HOOPs petition, with the remainder based on “estimated responses into [sic] the consultation including signatures, postcards, letters, emails, online responses, consultation response forms etc…” The TMA did not disclose whether duplicate responses were accounted for in reaching their figure of 500,000. For example, it is highly probable that at least some of the 236, 033 signatories of the HOOPs petition would also have submitted other forms of response: either a formal response to the consultation or a signature on a parallel campaign such as the TMA-funded postcard campaign run by the Tobacco Retailers Alliance specifically for retailers.

3. Falsifying signatures

The DoH made a number of its documents public following a recent Freedom of Information request . Amongst the documents are several letters written to Simon Clark. On the 14th June 2012 the DoH’s Tobacco Programme Manager wrote to inform Clark of an instance whereby the manager saw a member of the HOOPS campaign staff falsifying at least a page of signatures to the petition in the street. A follow up letter was sent on the 20th June 2012 asking Clark to comment on the methods HOOPS employed to gather signatures and how Forest was “verifying that the petition only includes the names and addresses of actual people, who have signed the petition of their own accord?”

This second letter was written following a complaint from the Chair of the Royal College of Physicians’ Tobacco Advisory Group. The Chair described how he had been told by his students at the University of Nottingham that friends of theirs at the University were being paid by HOOPs to gather signatures for the petition. On the 16th July an email was sent to Clark by the DoH’s Tobacco Programme Manager in response to a question Clark had directed at then Health Minister Andrew Lansley. The Tobacco Programme Manager took the opportunity to ask Clark whether he had received the two letters and mentioned new complaints that had been sent to the DoH about the HOOPs campaign. The three further complaints were again concerned with the methods used to gather signatures, with members of the public voicing concerns that HOOPs campaigners were:

  • targeting parents in play grounds telling them that plain packets would be completely plain with no health warnings;
  • gathering signatures in loud nightclubs;
  • targeting adolescents in the street telling them that the government was trying to ban cigarettes

Clark has published a number of blog posts in response to the release of these documents, defending the credibility of the HOOPs campaign and diverting attention away from the HOOPs scandal by directing criticism at the Plain Packs Protect campaign.


Tobacco industry’s influence on tobacco taxes: methods revealed

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📥  Industry tactics

There are many case studies documenting how the tobacco industry attempts to influence tobacco tax policies but until now there has been no attempt to collate this information. Together with a colleague at the University of Edinburgh, we have published a systematic review of 36 studies (largely in the US) investigating tobacco industry efforts to influence tax policies between 1985 and 2010.

It is generally accepted that increases in tobacco tax, by increasing the price of tobacco products, are one of the most successful means of reducing smoking. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the tobacco industry works hard to prevent significant tax increases. The industry has developed and utilised numerous arguments and tactics to prevent such increases.

Our review suggests that the tobacco industry lobbies, often collectively, against rises in tobacco tax and that it particularly dislikes increases where revenue is earmarked for tobacco control. Two of the most commonly deployed industry arguments against tax increases have been that such policies are socially regressive and stimulate illicit trade. Both arguments have played an important role in recruiting credible, non-traditional allies to tobacco industry anti-tax campaigns, lending legitimacy to their arguments.

Their use of third parties to promote industry arguments, and evidence of payments/gift-giving to key officials, underlines the importance of ensuring that Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which seeks to protect public health policies from industry interference, is ratified and applied to tobacco tax policies.

Arguments against tax increases

The most commonly identified argument to prevent tobacco tax increases was that such increases would lead to increases in illicit trade. This in turn, the industry claimed, would:

  • Make tobacco more accessible to the young
  • Fund the activities of organised crime gangs
  • Divert police attention away from other crimes

These arguments helped the industry attract the support of non-traditional, credible allies such as the police. Other commonly cited arguments used by the industry included claims that such increases are:

  • Unfair and overly punitive towards smokers
  • Socially regressive (i.e. higher taxes unfairly lead to a greater tax burden on poorer groups)
  • Have negative economic impacts on local businesses
  • Reduce government tax revenue

In reality, evidence indicates:

When Canada reduced taxes in response to the illicit trade argument, youth smoking prevalence increased and the level of smuggling did not change. Claims that tobacco taxes are unfair on smokers also ignore the fact that the majority of smokers want to quit and that higher prices are associated with quitting.

Arguments against earmarking

We looked at 17 studies concerning policy proposals to substantially increase taxes and ‘earmark’ (i.e. ‘ring-fence’) the resulting revenue for tobacco control programmes (all at US state level). The industry appears to particularly dislike these kinds of tax increases. They claimed that earmarked funds would be used in ways which the public did not support or in ways which differed from those described in the original proposal. For example, the industry often argued that tobacco tax revenue would be misused to subsidise healthcare for poorer groups, which the industry sometimes framed as a diversion of funds to ‘greedy’ doctors and healthcare companies. This argument was helped by the fact that healthcare and health insurance organisations often did want to divert the funds and by the fact the tobacco industry sometimes worked with them to try to achieve such diversions.

Tactics used to influence tobacco tax policies

Tobacco companies have worked to develop links with credible allies but have also established, funded and worked through front groups, which often have the appearance of local ‘grassroots’ movements. Both of these tactics were used to aid the credibility of industry tax-related campaigns by obscuring the self-interest of the industry. In addition, tobacco friendly experts, consultants, public relations and advertising firms were all employed for similar purposes.

More directly, the industry lobbied policymakers and sometimes paid or gave gifts, to key decision-makers. One US study demonstrated that this tactic had a statistically detectable impact on recipients’ tobacco-related voting pattern.

Paid advertisements in the mass media, letters to newspapers and open-edition articles were also used to disseminate and promote industry tax arguments, often drawing on industry-funded research as support. These findings suggest that journalists and policymakers ought to be alert to the tobacco industry’s potential involvement, even when messages appear to have emerged from grassroots or independent sources. The industry has used such tactics more broadly against other tobacco control measures too.

Influencing tobacco tax structure

The seven studies that considered industry efforts to influence tobacco excise structures indicate different companies favour different structures in different contexts. For example, Philip Morris (which produces the high-end Marlboro cigarettes) was consistently found to promote specific (set-rate) taxes, which benefit the premium, more expensive brands that it tends to focus on selling. In contrast, British American Tobacco (BAT), which has historically had a more diverse brand portfolio including mid-price and cheaper, local brands, appeared to prefer mixed excise structures which incorporate a proportional element. This is presumably because of the competitive advantage this structure confers over Philip Morris. Despite their varying preferences, tobacco companies were consistently found to promote their preferred tax structures by claiming that it would increase government revenue and reduce illicit trade, even when they knew this was not necessarily true.

Full reference to the paper:

Smith, K. E., Savell, E., Gilmore, A. B. (2012) What is known about tobacco industry efforts to influence tobacco tax? A systematic review of empirical studies. Tobacco Control, epub doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050098.


Big Tobacco create retail group as a disguise

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📥  Industry tactics

Australian retailers group created to conceal origin of Big Tobacco’s opposition to plain packaging.

The recent UK government consultation on plain packaging has seen a strong response from seemingly grassroots movements opposed to plain packaging legislation, including smokers’ rights groups and retailers. For instance, the Hands Off Our Packs campaign, run by industry-funded smokers’ rights group FOREST, submitted 235,000 signatures against the introduction of the proposed legislation. However, documents leaked in Australia show that, in Australia at least, the industry did more than provide a contribution to a third-party group. In fact, the industry was directly involved in the creation of and the day-to-day activity of an apparent third party group.

Leaked tobacco industry documents from 2010 detail how Philip Morris Limited (PML) and an Australian public relations company, The Civic Group, created the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR) in 2010. The purpose of the AAR, as documented by email correspondence between The Civic Group and PML, was to act on behalf of the tobacco industry to ‘seek a change in policy such that there is [sic] no introduction of ‘generic packaging’ into the Australian market.” The President of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health, Professor Mike Daube, commented that these documents “are possibly the most devastating tobacco industry leak ever in Australia.”

The documents reveal that in 2010 the director of Corporate Affairs at PML, Chris Argent, and the director of The Civic Group Jason Aldworth set up the AAR to influence public opinion and policy makers, which included strategies to discredit those that advocated the introduction of plain packaging.

In response the Civic Group’s initial campaign proposal, Argent requested more detail on how the campaign could influence government, “Please note that contrary to the proposal the Coalition’s resolve is not strong. It is at best neutral. Please provide representative examples of the messages that might be delivered to Labor and the Coalition through the Government relations component of the campaign. Who will deliver these messages?” Furthermore, they outlined a detailed plan on how messages should be delivered and who should deliver them. In correspondence with the Civic Group, Argent asked “What messages will PML communicate in its own voice versus using third-party’s?”

Once the AAR was created, Argent was involved in the day-to-day running and management of the AAR. Emails were exchanged between the Civic Group and Argent on how the AAR should respond to media requests and what should be said to the media. It was agreed that in response to any queries regarding the funding of the Civic Group and the AAR campaign, finite amounts should not be disclosed.

In fact, to set up and manage the AAR, the Civic Group was given over $5 million by the three leading tobacco companies in Australia. British American Tobacco Australia paid $2.2 million, PML paid $2.16 million, and Imperial Tobacco paid just short of $1.1 million.

The leaked documents are now housed in a central repository of tobacco industry documents, available on the online Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

Collated information on the Alliance of Australian Retailers can be located at