’Cigarette maker concedes smoking can cause cancer’. This New York
Times headline, two weeks ago, is one the anti-smoking lobby has waited
over 30 years to see.
The startling admission by US cigarette company Liggett that tobacco
causes cancer sparked a flurry of media interest worldwide.
Bennett LeBow, head of Liggett’s parent firm The Brooke Group, made the
statement as part of a deal with 22 state attorneys who have been suing
the industry to recover the cost of treating the sufferers of
LeBow also agreed to pay litigants a quarter of his pre-tax profits for
the next 25 years and share legal defence documents with anti-tobacco
The response of the remaining tobacco giants - Philip Morris, RJ
Reynolds, Brown and Williamson and Lorillard - to their former ally was
swift. The top four players secured a restraining order preventing LeBow
from turning over defence documents and issued a joint press
Their PR tactic was to by-pass LeBow’s damaging comment that smoking
causes cancer - something tobacco firms still dispute - and focus
instead on discrediting their attacker.
The release noted that LeBow testified in a 1993 court case that he was
a ’two-to-three pack a day smoker for about 15 years’. At the time LeBow
claimed smoking was not addictive and he did not know if it caused
LeBow was also labelled as an opportunist, ’brokering a deal’ in order
to force one of the other cigarette manufacturers to take over his
Liggett may be, as they claim, a one-off but the issue of paying off
claimants is posing a real and growing problem for the image of tobacco
companies in the States.
Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and Brown and Williamson have been using the
PR company Bozell Sawyer Miller and two law firms for several months to
develop plans for a settlement of its legal and regulatory hassles,
although the PR agency denied it was involved in handling the Liggett
Meanwhile, this side of the pond, tobacco companies have been sending
out similar messages in response to Liggett.
’Emotive rhetoric’ is how one top tobacco PR man summed up UK media
coverage of the issue. Again, their defence tactic revolved around
LeBow. ’This is all about money,’ he added. ’It has nothing to do with
morality and health.’
Others, like BAT investor relations manager Ralph Edmondson stressed it
is a US, not a UK issue and one which has practically been stubbed out
over here. ’There was some tension last week but it is becoming last
week’s story,’ Edmondson commented on the volume of media coverage.
Not surprisingly others, especially the anti-tobacco lobby see things
differently. ’It’s the beginning of the end for the tobacco industry,’
says former head of public communications at the Medical Research
Council Mary Rice. ’I think they are deeply concerned. In PR terms there
is not much they can do, they have been shown up as having lied.’
Pamela Taylor, who until recently was the chairman of the anti-smoking
pressure group ASH, also predicts troubles ahead for the tobacco
industry now one of them has broken away. ’What they have always done in
PR terms, which is despicable but effective, is to say there is a debate
over whether smoking causes cancer,’ says Taylor.
According to Taylor cigarette companies have always stuck together and
only responded to debate as a group. Although the legal systems differ
here, there are 23 cases pending. As details of the cases are heard, in
two years time, Taylor predicts the companies will abandon their
solidarity in a bid to save their own individual images.
Unlike Edmondson, Taylor views tobacco companies as global players which
will try to avoid any legal battles with a worldwide impact and predicts
a move into third world countries to avoid them. ’They can see threats
coming in on all sides,’ she explains. ’They are restricted in Canada,
the US and parts of Europe. In terms of promotions they will look to
third world countries like China for future markets.’
Crisis management expert Mike Regester says that the Liggett case has
been over-hyped but claims the tobacco giants are still ignoring a few
fundamental crisis rules.
’It is much better for industries to confront the potential risks
associated with their products and communicate their willingness to
manage this risk,’ says Regester, although he admits ’this is harder to
do with cigarettes’.
However he adds: ’It is ridiculous that they continue to pretend the
link between smoking and cancer has not been formally established.’
It is hard to say whether, in the light of Liggett, firms like BAT will
continue to employ scientists, lawyers and PR people to combat social
and medical arguments against smoking or step up the PR campaign for
’smokers’ rights’, a tactic used in the US where smokers’ are facing
’The PR implications depend on where it ends up,’ says one tobacco
industry source referring to the Liggett case. ’This is only the
beginning. We have heard what LeBow has to say, and the financial
analysts have seen right through it. We will just have to wait for the