Since the link between smoking and cancer was discovered almost
half a century ago, the crisis management policy of most tobacco
companies has been to build a fortress around themselves and take
With a UK ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship imminent, the more
astute tobacco companies are rethinking their approach to marketing,
attempting to substitute conflict for consensus with opinion
The ban on advertising and sponsorship is not the only crisis facing the
tobacco industry. An increasingly significant issue is litigation
against cigarette manufacturers by individuals and groups of individuals
who say that tobacco companies are to blame for serious damage to their
health from smoking.
So far this has been confined to the US. In Florida, a case is currently
underway which is seen as a landmark by the anti-smoking lobby, as it
could set a precedent for how much tobacco companies should be
The Engel case involves a group of smokers against Big Tobacco - the
generic moniker that has been attached to big manufacturers such as
Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds. The Florida jury has already found Big
Tobacco guilty of conspiring to make an addictive product that causes
cancer and heart disease, and awarded the group pounds 12.7 million
compensation and is now to decide on the level of punitive payments.
Three similar individual cases have also hit the headlines recently for
going against the tobacco industry - all three are now on appeal.
Speaking to the Times this month, Richard Daynard, chairman of the
Tobacco Products Liability Group, said the key to the cases was the
recent discovery of documents showing that the tobacco industry knew of
the risks of smoking years ago but covered them up. ’In every case where
they have been sued, the plaintiff has won,’ he said.
Whether or not the industry manages to overturn all these cases, the
fact that they are starting to come to court in greater numbers - since
the first case was launched in 1954, only 50 cases have come to court -
is bad news in itself for the manufacturers. It also makes life even
tougher for those PR agencies who work for the industry.
Tobacco is not the only industry to have a bad press, but its apparent
ambivalence towards public opinion marks it out. For decades the tobacco
industry has lived with crisis and rather than addressing it head on,
the industry has preferred to pump millions into advertising,
sponsorship deals and merchandising.
Philip Morris’ senior vice-president of corporate affairs, Steven
Parrish, recently admitted that his company’s PR philosophy had been to
’stay out of the papers’. Speaking in January at the Conference Board’s
Corporate Image conference in New York, he said Philip Morris’ policy
had been to ’hire the best lobbyists in the world to deal with
government, but let public opinion take care of itself’.
Nigel Anderson, chairman of the Chancellor Tobacco Company and former
joint managing director of Gallaher Tobacco, says it is difficult for
tobacco companies to take a proactive PR stance over the health issues
surrounding smoking. ’The industry tends to be proactive only on such
issues as taxation, government restrictions, underage smoking and
The Chancellor Tobacco Company, which launched Treasurer cigarettes in
April, takes a provocative approach to its own PR: the company name and
product are digs at the Treasury. Anderson himself is no stranger to
controversy - he was a consultant to the Enlightened Tobacco Company,
makers of Death cigarettes.
’Chancellor is a very small company with no history,’ explains
’We can’t be accused of encouraging people to take up smoking. In fact
the reverse is true since our customers are by definition committed
smokers with money to burn.’
But for other industry players, the past failure to deal with the issue
of health has created a climate of mistrust between themselves and
opinion formers, which exists to this day. Representatives from
Gallaher, RJ Reynolds and British American Tobacco were invited to
comment on their PR challenges, but all three choose not to
Relations between the tobacco industry and the media on the other side
of the Atlantic reached a new low when Business Week called Philip
Morris ’America’s most reviled company’ in its November 1999 issue.
However, Philip Morris is doing more than most to address its corporate
image, recently launching a multi-million dollar PR and advertising
David Davies, vice-president, corporate affairs, Philip Morris Europe,
says: ’In the past, we didn’t speak up enough for ourselves and our
critics were able to define us in ways which were inaccurate. As a
result, people don’t know what we stand for.’
Davies admits that the ’contentiousness and conflict’ inherent in many
of the issues surrounding the industry precluded any ’reasonable debate’
with opinion formers in the past. But he says that over the last year,
Philip Morris has been making a conscious decision to address the
concerns it claims to share with the public and government.
For example, the company has been working in partnership with the
Portuguese government and its public health authorities on print and
cinema campaigns to persuade young people not to take up smoking.
’The challenge for us is to get back in step and address the issues,’
says Davies. ’We support the right of adults who are informed of the
risks to smoke, but we also share the view that there must be a
regulatory framework, so that people are informed of the risks. These
are not new commitments.
The difference is that in the past we didn’t seek to make them
Le Fevre Communications worked with the Enlightened Tobacco Company on
Death cigarettes and is now working with the Chancellor Tobacco Company
on Treasurer cigarettes. Agency chairwoman Joy Le Fevre believes that
honesty should be paramount in all of the tobacco industry’s dealings
with the media.
Media trainers believe it is essential that tobacco companies take a
more proactive stance to their PR. Sarah King, teaching fellow at crisis
management specialist the Henshall Centre in London adds that any new
strategy needs ’the full management buy-in’ if the issue of health and
smoking is to be tackled head on.
’Once the communications strategy has been given the full backing of the
company, a clear respect for the anti-smoking lobby must form the
foundation of the approach.’
King believes that given careful planning a real opportunity exists for
tobacco companies to take a lead in ethical issues, such as employment
and Third World Trade. ’While these will not cancel out the health
issue, they will help establish the foundation for a more positive image
in the eyes of stakeholders,’ she says.
The Tobacco Manufacturers Association (TMA) is the trade body which
represents manufacturers in the UK. Rosemary Brook, chairman of
consultancy Brook Wilkinson, advises the TMA on its communications and
media strategy, as well as providing media relations support.
Brook claims the TMA has always taken a proactive PR stance on behalf of
its members, but has met with a wall of resistance from the media.
’PR practitioners have to break through the resistance of many
publications to carry stories from the tobacco industry which might be
deemed to be ’positive’ in a generally anti-smoking climate,’ she
Edelman group director Nick Archer works for the Tobacco Alliance which
seeks representation for the 26,000 independent tobacco retailers in the
UK. His work includes making presentations to the House of Commons
Treasury Select Committee and liaising with regional media when a member
shop is closed as a indirect result of smuggling.
Archer agrees that it is hard for PR practitioners to pitch a tobacco
story to journalists. Brook and Archer are keen to put across to the
media many of the issues currently facing the tobacco industry. These
include the impact of the UK tax differential on tobacco (which the
industry claims indirectly encourages smuggling), the impending ban on
advertising and sponsorship, and the challenges to the legal basis of
European directives on banning tobacco advertising.
In July 1998, the EU directive to ban tobacco advertising was adopted by
the member states, with timing left to individual members. In September
1998, the principal UK tobacco companies challenged the validity of the
EU directive and a response from the European Court of Justice is
expected later this year. Meanwhile, the Government signalled its
intention to press ahead with a ban in the UK. This was due to be
enforced in December, but is currently the subject of a legal challenge
by the tobacco industry.
In the arena of sponsorship, Formula One has until 2006 to find
alternatives sponsors and all other sports have until 2003.
With a ban on advertising and sponsorship looming large, the importance
of PR as a marketing tool is increasingly important. However, Carl
Courtney, managing director of ICAS Public Relations, says his client
Imperial Tobacco has never underestimated the importance of PR.
’Imperial Tobacco has always thought seriously about its corporate image
and PR is an essential part of its communications strategy,’ he
Last year, ICAS launched Richmond King Size and Richmond Lights for
Imperial Tobacco. The low price cigarettes are its first new product in
The launch was a success because the tobacco company and its PR team had
taken the time to build up good working relations with the media.
Tobacco companies which choose not to open up honest lines of
communication with the media cannot expect journalists to then cover the
stories they wish to promote. And with the ban on tobacco advertising
just around the corner, now would be a good time for all tobacco
companies to put their communications houses in order.
ASH CONTINUES CAMPAIGNING TO KEEP CUSTOMERS INFORMED
UK pressure group ASH has been campaigning for almost 30 years against
smoking. For many of its campaigns, ASH teams up with cancer charities
and local health authorities.
Last year, the organisation publicised a joint report between the
Imperial Cancer Research Fund, the US State of Massachusetts and ASH.
The report claims tobacco companies have been adding chemicals to
cigarettes to increase the addictive nature of nicotine, keeping smokers
Research manager, Amanda Sandford, says: ’In the UK, over 600 additives
are permitted in cigarettes, including ammonia and flavourings which
make the brand distinctive. While these additives may be harmless in
themselves, when they are burnt, they could be potentially harmful.’ For
example, cocoa is known to dilate the airwaves when smoked, making
Sandford says the campaign aimed to raise awareness of additives amongst
the public and encourage the European Commission to include the issue of
additives in its new directive on tobacco product regulation.
’Lobbying at a European level tends to be done jointly with colleagues
in Europe so that we present a united message,’ says Sandford. ’This
includes meetings with Commission staff and MEPs and producing
In the UK, a press conference was held to launch the additives campaign,
at which an expert in the field was brought over from the US to address
The Department of Health endorsed the report, and health secretary Alan
Milburn announced he would publish the list of additives on the
department’s web site while giving evidence to the Health Select
Committee during its investigation into the tobacco industry.
In November, the EC published an outline of the new directive on tobacco
product regulation. The proposal states: ’Tobacco manufacturers and
importers should disclose all tobacco ingredients to member states’
authorities by brand name. This shall be done annually, starting not
later than 31 December 2003.’
ASH is now looking to 29 June, when the new directive is scheduled to be
considered by the EU’s Health Council. ASH is also working on a lobbying
campaign for the implementation of the Health and Safety Executive’s
Approved Code of Practice which deals with passive smoking.
’This will give guidance on dealing with passive smoking in the
workplace and also drum up support for the Public Places Charter, which
is a similar code designed to minimise passive smoking in the
CHANCELLOR TAKES ELITIST STANCE WITH TREASURER LAUNCH
When a tobacco company launches a product it faces an uphill struggle.
Not only is the marketplace exceptionally competitive, but the media is
reluctant to cover ’positive’ cigarette stories. The industry is almost
in crisis management mode every time it launches a product.
For the April launch of Treasurer cigarettes, The Chancellor Tobacco
Company and its PR agency Le Fevre Communications adopted a provocative
PR strategy in an attempt to break through this wall of resistance.
The product was helped by its distinct USP - Treasurer retails at pounds
17 for a tin of 20 cigarettes. The cigarettes, which are being targeted
at cigarette connoisseurs, are silver tipped and made from pure Virginia
The UK launch was entirely PR-led. ’Advertising would have been a waste
of time, since the product is on limited sale. We also thought the story
was strong enough to run on its own,’ says Nigel Anderson, chairman of
the Chancellor Tobacco Company, In all press communications, the story
was released with the strapline: ’Treasurer cigarettes seriously damage
your wealth.’ Joy Le Fevre, founder and chairwoman of Le Fevre
Communications says: ’We took a deliberately elitist stance and sold
snobbery. We have openly admitted that a tin costs an incredible amount
and buyers will be very wealthy. Lowest price and best value are common
PR themes and we turned these messages on their heads with
The story was pitched at consumer and business titles. With the tax
rises on cigarettes in April’s budget still fresh in people’s minds, the
launch generated a good range of newspaper coverage and radio coverage.
This included the Times and the Evening Standard, plus extensive radio