Big Tobacco’s Recipe for Success

by Kapil Khatter on September 3, 2013

Teen smokingIf Phillip Morris is indeed Satan, there appears to be no shortage of people willing to sleep in the devil’s bed. Confidential documents leaked recently about the tobacco company’s British lobbying efforts reveal just how many bed-mates the maker of Marlboro cigarettes has.

In its successful effort to stop plain cigarette packages from ruining years of expensive branding work, Phillip Morris put its campaign in the hands of lobbyist Lynton Crosby who just happens to have been the ruling Conservative Party’s election strategist. The result was a comprehensive plan to block the plain packaging law, legislation the government subsequently decided not to pursue.

Here’s your chance to learn from their success. If you are cooking up a plan to stop public health measures that are bad for your business, try this recipe from the world’s largest tobacco company.

Tobacco companies: if you can’t beat them, delay them (tweet this)

First do some polling that asks questions angled to work in your favour. Would you rather have your government do this one small thing that will decrease tobacco addiction and save lives, or would you rather they focus on the economy, education, unemployment and other sundry policies? How many will support plain packaging if it means the government would have no time for the economy, education and unemployment? And do that push poll (a poll actually meant to influence people not just get information) mostly in the swing ridings crucial to the government.

Then you commission other research, scientificky studies framed just right to help you make your case. You roll out your poll results, follow them up with some research results. You use them to craft key messages, soundbites, emotion-laden statements meant to create doubt, to confuse, to delay – because if you can’t beat them, delay them.

While you’re doing that you get ready for the government consultations. You get really ready, with enough submissions to choke a dozen bureaucrats. According to the Guardian/Observer, holder of the leaked documents, Phillip Morris arranged for submissions from 1,000 workers concerned about their jobs, 6,000 smokers surprisingly concerned more about packaging than their lungs, and a full 10,050 from retailers unsurprisingly concerned it will hurt sales, which is exactly what it’s meant to do.

They had another 950 submissions lined up from industry (surely that part was easy) and 40 really smart comments from think tanks. The think tank part had to be simple as well since Phillip Morris has been funding UK right wing think tanks all along. As an added bonus, advertisers were onside too. There’s not a lot of money in designing plain packaging or in magazine ads for products without sexy branding.

Then you reach the politicians, you reach every single one of them. If you can’t brief them in their offices you invite them to fancy receptions, perhaps at the Conservative Party’s own conferences the way Phillip Morris did. You feed them drinks; you feed them your lines.

And then you contact the journalists, the “go-to” reporters as the tobacco company puts it, the one’s friendliest to your interests. You help them out with an extra spokesperson by funding your own “grassroots” organization, like Hands Off Our Packs to protest your demonization. The more people you can get to sell their souls the better.

The result is a full court press, a seemingly irresistible force that no one can afford to match, dollar for dollar anyway. Australia somehow managed to buck tobacco company pressure and pass the world’s first plain packaging law, so the stakes have been high. Big tobacco badly needed to remove this second domino.

In Britain, tobacco companies have the advantage of an even righter wing or at least more libertarian party, UKip, the UK Independence Party, a party dedicated to smokers’ rights. With UKip making the Conservatives edgy, and the tobacco lobby on DEFCON 1, it’s not surprising they won this battle.

I can’t pretend that Phillip Morris’ arguments are all smoke and no hellfire. They surely are concerned that plain packaging will make it easier to counterfeit their products, make them easier to smuggle. Anti-fraud experts are skeptical of the claim though, saying the present packs are easy enough to copy. Amanda Sandford of Action on Smoking and Health, a UK public health charity, points out that security features, markings on the cigarette packages, help prevent smuggling, and those would still be on the plain packs.

There isn’t definitive proof that plain packaging would be effective, but what studies have been done indicate it should be. Early research in Australia also suggests that plain packaging might be making a difference, making cigarettes less attractive to smokers, but that data is really preliminary.

According to Action on Smoking and Health, 200,000 children start smoking in the United Kingdom every year, children between 11 and 15 years of age. Phillip Morris doesn’t take much responsibility for this, but it’s time the British government did.

If plain packaging is likely to keep fewer kids from starting, keep fewer smokers from continuing, it seems worth trying. It might not be the best thing for those in the business of making or selling this highly addictive and really harmful drug. But it will likely be best thing for the rest of us.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

If you would like to support Action on Smoking and Health and the work that they do, follow the link.

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