Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 6 - July 2011
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Industry behind advocacy groups

 

Is big tobacco still paying for lip service?

 

A 1990s tactic that continues today

 

By Anick Perreault-Labelle

 

Chairman Richard Burrows admitted in April that British American Tobacco (BAT) had funded and advised the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN), the biggest association for newsagents and convenience store owners in Great Britain. The goal? To discretely help the NFRN lead a campaign against a bill that would hide cigarette displays in convenience stores.

Tobacco companies have been using third parties to defend their causes for the past 20 years. “It’s what I call lobbying by proxy,” says Raymond Hudon, professor of political science at Laval University in Quebec City. “Since these companies are no longer credible to the public, they use front groups to get their message across.” Specifically, they create or finance retailers or citizens groups whose discourse on smokers rights or against contraband tobacco receives a priori a good reception from the public… all the while serving the interests of tobacco companies.

Another recent example of the phenomenon was the creation in 2010 of the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR). Its mandate: oppose the bill that would bring mandatory plain packaging to Australian tobacco products in 2012. To do this, the AAR created slick announcements for radio and TV in which small shopkeepers argued that the new law would complicate their work and cause them to lose sales. However, it appears that the AAR is nothing but a front for big tobacco. Indeed the public television station Australian Broadcasting Corporation has revealed that the association received more than $6 million CDN from British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco Australia. Obviously, the TV and radio spots don’t mention this, although the information does appear on the AAR website.

The best known example of a front group is without a doubt the National Smokers Alliance (NSA). In 1998, the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation revealed that this smokers’ rights group had been founded by public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, with an approximately $4 million investment from Philip Morris International. And Canada is no exception: in 2004, the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council (CTMC) invested $2.5 million in the creation of the Mychoice.ca and Monchoix.ca project. These two websites, active until 2010, claimed to give a voice to smokers and to help them decide if they wanted to smoke or not. In reality, they actively campaigned against smoke-free public legislation.

The message these organizations are sending is far from harmless. “Lack of disclosure by front groups… of their links with the tobacco industry results in unbalanced arguments and evidence, presented without statements of relevant competing interest,” notes the World Health Organization’s 2008 report Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control.

A relationship not always easy to prove

Groups do not always openly acknowledge receiving support and input from tobacco companies. And since they are usually non-profit organizations, nothing obliges them to disclose their financial statements. Nor are their member lists particularly revealing: the tobacco companies aren’t always listed as members, and when they are, it is just as one among many.

There are, however, some clues that can suggest a merchants or citizens association is bankrolled by tobacco companies. For example, a newly formed small group, launching a big, expensive campaign is suspicious. “This was the case for MATRAC (a movement to abolish tobacco taxes) active in the beginning of the 1990s,” says François Damphousse, Quebec Director for the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA). “I found it surprising that convenience store owners — who already work such long hours – had the resources and knowledge to organize large and sophisticated media events on the sale of contraband tobacco.” Tobacco companies have denied any involvement in MATRAC, despite an exposé by journalist André Noël in the Montreal daily La Presse, which reported meetings between CTMC and MATRAC decision makers.

This is also the case for the Quebec Convenience Stores Association (AQDA - in French). “I’ve never seen a cheque, but it’s obvious to me that their anti-contraband tours around the province of Quebec needed a lot of resources and were financed by the tobacco companies,” said Florent Gravel, President of the grocery stores association of Quebec officially titled Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec. “We have pointed the finger at tobacco companies for their exclusive funding of the AQDA; other organizations, like ours, don’t have the benefits of such funding opportunities.”

The AQDA refused to answer questions on the subject, but there are other clues that point to a link between them and the tobacco industry. Michel Gadbois heads the association. André Noël found out he was once a publicist at Benson (now owned by Philip Morris International) and Imasco (now Imperial Tobacco). The AQDA is also a member of the Canadian Convenience Store Association (CCSA). “The chairs of these organizations are tobacco industry veterans,” says François Damphousse. In short, the professional background of the people leading so-called independent groups is a telling indicator.

There are several other clues highlighting the connection between the AQDA and the tobacco industry. For instance, of the more than 100 links on the association’s website, only 20 or so don’t concern tobacco. Also, the sale of contraband cigarettes is not rising, contrary to what the AQDA says. Indeed, in a May 2010 document, the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control lists all the elements showing otherwise. For example, the 2010-2011 Quebec budget notes that “revenue from the specific tax on tobacco products is revised upward by $65 million owing to the increase in the number of cigarettes sold legally.” Also, the British American Tobacco’s 2010 annual report notes that “profit in Canada was higher, with the effect of reduced illicit trade [and] price increases [among other things].”

A group that does business with the same public relations firm used by tobacco companies is often another indication of where loyalties lie. In the late 1990s, the public relations giant Edelman, which was known to have cigarette manufacturers as clients, was also managing PR for the Alliance for Sponsorship Freedom. This group, which included some 150 sporting and cultural events from across the country, was calling on governments to back down from the ban of tobacco sponsorship, arguing they had a right to choose any legal Canadian corporation as a sponsor. Its pressure tactics led to some delays in the adoption and application, but Ottawa’s comprehensive ban on tobacco sponsorship eventually came into force in 2003.

Are all pro-tobacco groups fronts?

In the world of pressure groups, appearances can sometimes be deceiving. “Our discourse overlaps somewhat with that of the tobacco industry, but that’s not because they’re financing us,” says Yves Servais, Executive Director of a second association of grocery and convenience stores in Quebec. “It’s because cigarettes represent 30% of our members’ sales, on average.” (A 2009 study conducted by HEC Montréal, Desjardins Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers confirms this figure.)

Similarly, the Union des tenanciers de bars du Québec (UTBQ), a coalition for bar owners, fought from 2005 to 2009 against the smoking ban in Quebec bars, but in an interview with our French-language sister publication Info-tabac, UTBQ President Peter Sergakis swears that he never received any money from tobacco companies. This, alas, is very difficult to prove or disprove. But as an indication of Sergakis’ good faith, let’s mention that over the past 20 years, he has protested against a surcharge on commercial properties, the lowering of the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05, funds paid to the Hippodrome in Montreal, SAQ stamps and the price of parking meters, amongst other things.

Finally, some have argued that Montreal citizens’ group Citizens Against Government Encroachment (CAGE) was funded by cigarette companies. Founded in 2004, CAGE says it fights ‘nanny-statism’ that requires citizens to avoid such things as trans fats and cigarettes. “We started legal proceedings against a citizen who, under the pseudonym Cathy Bell, alleged that we were on the payroll of tobacco companies and we won, out of court,” says group co-founder, Daniel Romano. Admittedly, CAGE co-hosted events with Mychoice.ca and more than half of the articles on the group’s website have to do with the ‘hazards’ of smoking cessation. “But the tobacco companies have refused to help us when we’ve approached them, to avoid undermining our credibility,” says Romano candidly.

François Damphousse does not expect to see a surge of new ‘independent’ groups backed by tobacco companies if Canada or Quebec go ahead with plain packaging laws or a ban on smoking in multi-family dwellings. “The AQDA will simply extend its mandate to defend the tobacco industry’s other issues.” That said, if a new association appears, there are a few questions that need to be asked to uncover its true allegiance. Tobacco control history is full of examples where front groups operated for many years before ever being exposed of having ties or being influenced by the industry.