Plain packaging opposition in the UK

Posted in: Industry tactics


A public consultation aimed to help the government gather evidence on the potential impacts of plain packaging ran between the 16th April 2012 and the 10th August 2012.

In response to this consultation, the tobacco industry and its allies launched what appears to be coordinated anti-plain packaging campaigns.

A Short History of Plain Packaging illustrates that the tobacco industry has been working on a defence strategy against the threat of plain packaging since the 1990s. In 2010, industry analyst Citigroup noted that plain packaging is the “biggest regulatory threat to the industry, as packaging is the most important way tobacco companies have to communicate with the consumer and differentiate their products.”  Therefore, it's unsurprising that there has been such a strong response from the tobacco industry.

Tobacco companies’ political advertising

Tobacco companies such as British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Philip Morris International (PMI) have publicised their views on plain packaging on their corporate websites, including their arguments against plain packaging (e.g. encourages illicit trade, trade mark infringement etc). BAT have included such arguments in two emotive adverts.

Imperial and JTI, who in 2011 collectively held just over eighty per cent of the UK cigarette market share, have also engaged in Corporate Political Advertising to influence both the views of ‘government and of decision makers’. For example, a You Tube ad called 'Britain - 2020 Vision', which misleadingly suggests that in the future all perceived unhealthy products could be sold in plain packaging, has a small disclaimer saying that it was funded by Imperial Tobacco.

The 2020 Vision ad has been promoted on leaflets distributed on petrol forecourts, with the message ‘Say NO to plain packs’. These leaflets are not openly attributable to any organisation. (see images 1 and 2).

Image 1

Image 2
Image 2

Imperial Tobacco has also used Corporate Political Advertising in an attempt to influence UK Members of Parliament (MPs) views on plain packaging. The company funded an advertisement in ‘The House’ magazine (a weekly political magazine delivered directly to MPs, Peers, and civil servants). The advert mimicked the possible plain packackaging for cigarettes  by covering the normal cover pages in dark brown/gold paper and a warning message which read, “WARNING Plain Packaging: Bad for business Good for Criminals”.  The double spread cover page did not disclose it was an Imperial Tobacco anti-plain packaging advertising campaign. However on page 19 of the magazine, a second gold coloured full-page advert claimed that plain packaging would not benefit wholesalers, consumers, business, retailers or the government, but would only benefit criminals. This advert featured the logo of Asian Trader, a trade magazine and, in a smaller font than the rest of the text, at the bottom of the page explained: “This advert has been produced and placed by Imperial Tobacco in association with Asian Trader magazine.”

Furthermore, approximately 24-hours after the British government announced a four-week extension to the consultation on standardised packaging, JTI launched a campaign costing £2 million to “share its views” on the potential outcomes of plain packaging legislation. The campaign is centred on print adverts in national newspapers. According to JTI, this amount of spending is to ensure a wide reach of its messages to JTI’s target audience, “both government and decision makers”.  In July 2012, these ads were included in a number of daily newspapers including The Financial Times (see Image 3).

Front group anti-plain packaging campaigns

Pro-smoking group Forest, which receives funding from tobacco companies, runs the Hands Off Our Packs campaign which argues that plain packaging is the nanny state gone too far. The campaign is run by Angela Harbutt of Liberal Vision.

The Hands Off Our Packs campaign, which has a dedicated website, a Twitter and a Facebook account, has produced anti-plain packaging literature, You Tube ads (featuring retailers),and provides guidance on how to respond to the consultation in support of the continued branding of tobacco products. The website includes a petition to register one’s opposition to plain packaging. Visitors to the website are also encouraged to distribute leaflets and promote the campaign online via social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Speaking to the Grocer Magazine in February 2012, Simon Clark, Director of Forest, said that the Hands Off Our Packs campaign "was a response to the Plain Packs Protect campaign launched last month by an alliance of anti-tobacco groups". However, Clark registered the website back in September 2011, indicating that Forest may have planned this campaign long before the Plain Packs Protect campaign was launched in January 2012.

Retailers have been a particular campaign target of industry front groups. Mobilising retailer support to oppose tobacco control measures is a well-documented industry tactic and a prime example of how the industry uses front groups to promote their agenda. For example, the Tobacco Retailers Alliance (TRA), a coalition of retailers that sell tobacco products, was set up by the tobacco industry to promote its own viewpoint but with the explicit intention that it would appear separate from the tobacco industry. When the Tobacco Alliance (which later became the TRA) was established the industry stated that it “would encourage its supporters to act either as individuals or as representatives of their own organisations” in order to appear as a separate entity to the industry. It was also “stressed that the Alliance was needed because in order to be heard the entire tobacco family must speak with a unified voice and with confident command of the facts…”

In 1983, Tony St Aubyn, the then assistant director of the Public Relations subcommittee of the Tobacco Advisory Council stated in a workshop detailing how to set up a tobacco alliance that “Early on we decided that it would be preferable to keep the Alliance at arm’s length from TAC Tobacco Advisory Council, the predecessor to the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association 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 PR agents Daniel J Edelman."

Since the launch of the public consultation on plain packaging in April 2012, retail magazines such as the Grocer and Retail Newsagent have consistently featured opposition messages to plain packaging. They have also highlighted campaigns such as the ‘plain packaging postcard campaign’ run by the TRA (funded by the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association) which claims that plain packaging would have a negative impact on business and encourages retailers to ‘have your say’ in response to the government’s consultation. In July 2012, the TRA reported that 30,000 retailers had so far signed postcards, demonstrating how public consultations on tobacco control measures can be flooded with industry influenced opinion.

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Posted in: Industry tactics