ANALYSIS: Tobacco PR - New tobacco legislation leaves grey areas for PR/Tobacco manufacturers are asking for more clarity on how the Government’s decision to introduce a ban on tobacco advertising will affect the public relations industry

When the Government announced two weeks ago that it was to clamp down on the promotion of tobacco products, media coverage focused primarily on the potential impact on above-the-line advertising and sponsorship.

When the Government announced two weeks ago that it was to clamp

down on the promotion of tobacco products, media coverage focused

primarily on the potential impact on above-the-line advertising and


Print and billboard advertising of cigarettes and other tobacco products

will be banned after 10 December this year, while the majority of

sponsorship by tobacco companies will be halted by 2003.

But as they stand, the proposals extend far wider than advertising and

sponsorship. In its current consultation document, Draft Tobacco

(Prohibition of Advertising and Promotion) Regulations 1999, advertising

is defined as ’any form of commercial communication with the aim or the

direct or indirect effect of promoting a tobacco product’.

It is a definition in line with that used by the European Commission,

whose directive on tobacco promotion the Government is looking to

implement ahead of schedule.

Aside from the haste with which the regulations are being put in place,

one of the main worries of the tobacco industry is the broad scope of

its meaning. The deep-felt concern is that the new regulatory

environment will severely curtail their ability to carry out PR.

A two-month consultation process between the tobacco industry and the

Government has already begun and appears to be a vital exercise, given

that the exact nature of all the limitations to be imposed on

communications remain uncertain.

’There is a lot of confusion both inside and outside Government circles

as to the interpretation of the regulations,’ Tobacco Manufacturers’

Association public affairs director John Carlisle says.

’What if a journalist and I are at a party and I, as a representative of

the tobacco industry, offer a cigarette? Does that mean that, as it’s

free, it’s promotion? That’s nonsense. That’s why the interpretation

needs clarification.’

According to the Department of Health, tactics such as sending out press

releases, organising photocalls, hosting receptions, putting up web

sites and funding community projects will all be prohibited if they are

in any way seen as being designed to promote cigarettes to


’It’s all forms of communication which would result in tobacco promotion

reaching the general public,’ says a DoH spokesperson. ’Some people will

find they are unable to do work they could hitherto do.’

Imperial Tobacco general manager external affairs Paul Sadler is fairly

confident ’normal’ communications with the trade, shareholders and

internally with staff will be able to continue broadly unchanged.

Brook Wilkinson chairman Rosemary Brook, public affairs adviser to the

Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, adds: ’I can’t personally see any

reason why corporate communications would be affected, including

information on a corporation itself or its views on important


But there are sure to be grey areas. Where exactly will tobacco

promotion be deemed to end and legitimate corporate communications

begin? What, if anything, will the tobacco companies be able to say

about their brands on a corporate web site?

Rothmans public affairs manager Nicky Donnelly, together with the rest

of the tobacco industry, wants to see more clarity as to where the

communications restrictions will end. ’As an industry in the public

domain, there are issues people will seek reference on that are separate

from the brand,’ she says.

Corporate communication will be allowed so long as it is not linked to

product promotion or in any way directly intended to encourage tobacco

consumption. It is easy to keep corporate and consumer communication

separate on issues like tax levels imposed on tobacco products, or the

latest medical opinion on specific dangers of smoking. But the line

between the two can be blurred when it comes to general business issues

like the company’s performance.

Both the tobacco companies and campaigners like Clive Bates, director of

anti-smoking pressure group ASH, believe the grey areas to be found in

the new regulatory system will be tested in the courts.

Bates does not think there are ’freedom of speech or civil liberties

questions’ to be addressed as a result of the Government’s measures, but

he stresses that he would not like to see regulation being interpreted

in such a way that it prevents the tobacco industry from making its

views known on important issues - so long as in the process it does not

promote any product.

The regulations also clamp down on so-called brand-stretching, where

tobacco product names are applied to non-tobacco products, and direct

marketing to consumers, even if they are known to be smokers aged 18 or


Brook adds that the Government’s measures should be of concern to other

industries. She says: ’There’s a possible knock-on effect for other

industries in the future, making this a subject worthy of discussion.

But because it’s the tobacco industry it’s easy for people to walk


Few have track records as damning as tobacco’s: the Government’s draft

regulations state that smoking kills 120,000 people per annum in the UK

and costs the NHS between #1.4 and #1.7 billion.

But businesses like alcoholic drinks manufacturers, which recently faced

controversy over the appeal of alcopops to underage drinkers, should

stay on their guard.

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