Why work with Big Tobacco?

Cigarettes are the only commercial product that kills one in two of its regular users when consumed as intended. Jayaprakash R/Flickr

Big Tobacco’s desperate efforts to oppose the introduction of tobacco plain packaging have been supported by a potpourri of consulting, legal, advertising, public relations and lobbying organisations.

Consulting groups, lawyers and lobbyists are free to choose their clients, and it is still legal to sell tobacco products to adults (even though many retailers knowingly break the law prohibiting sales to children). But legal or not, the question remains: why, in 2012, would anybody want to work for or with the tobacco industry?

When I was first involved in tobacco control 40 years ago, the people leading tobacco companies had started their careers long before the dangers of smoking were identified or publicised. They took some wrong decisions early, setting the industry off on a long road of denying evidence, opposing effective action, promoting their lethal products wherever they could, and in my case offering to set me up handsomely to work on some other campaign. At least one could understand their approach, however misguided.

2012 is different. The overwhelming evidence about the dangers of smoking has been known and widely publicised for more than sixty years, confirmed over and again by evidence of the role cigarettes play in a galaxy of lethal and painful conditions. We know – as does anyone working for and with the industry – that cigarettes are the only commercial product that kills one in two of its regular users when consumed precisely as intended, and that passive smoking is a major cause of death and disease.

As long ago as 1967 the late Senator Robert Kennedy said, “the tobacco industry is peddling a deadly weapon. They are dealing in people’s lives for financial gain”.

The tobacco industry is more than lethal. It has been exposed over the years as dishonest and manipulative. Once-confidential industry internal documents show in fine detail that the major companies have been guilty of everything their most cynical critics suspect – and more.

They have lied and deceived. They have been found guilty in the United States of racketeering. In Australia, the main tobacco industry association even paid for people to go through the garbage of anti-smoking organizations.

Marionzetta/Flickr

Not surprisingly, Big Tobacco finishes rock bottom in global surveys of industry credibility.

Tobacco companies still market their products in developing countries in ways that would be unthinkable now in countries such as Australia. They promote to the vulnerable, just as once they targeted the youth market here.

In developed countries, they are mainly reduced to working in the shadowy half-light of lobbying and public relations. When they surface, as in their current desperate and misleading campaigns against plain packaging, they open themselves up to yet more cynicism and ridicule.

They cannot resist “dirty tricks” campaigns. They establish and fund front organisations. They pay consulting groups to produce substandard or one-sided reports that they then use for lobbying purposes. They use loopholes in the tobacco advertising ban legislation to run “political” media campaigns.

So why would anybody want to work with companies where success will result in more lung cancers, more heart disease, more respiratory disease, more suffering, more premature deaths? Who would want to work for a disreputable industry where even the suggestion of a “dirty tricks” campaign has instant plausibility?

Why would spokespeople and lobbyists for the companies want to expose themselves publicly as peddlers of Australia’s most lethal drug? How do people whose job is to ensure maximum possible cigarette sales sleep at night, knowing that so many of their consumers are suffering and dying? How do they tell their children and families that they work for companies long described as “merchants of death”?

Even if tobacco industry executives can close their eyes to the deaths for which they are responsible, why would large and respectable consulting groups, advertising agencies, legal firms, or even public relations and lobbying companies, which presumably can choose their clients, agree to act as hired guns for this pariah industry? Why do they not take the approach recommended by the World Health Organization and adopted by universities and other research groups and have nothing to do with the tobacco industry – no matter how much money is offered?

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It is true that cigarettes are a legally sold product – albeit so harmful that parliaments around the country have decreed that they may not be sold to minors. But that is a historical accident: if they were a new product, they would not be would be allowed on the market.

There is a long-standing and worthy legal tradition that any client – no matter how evil – is entitled to a defence. There is no such noble tradition or rationale for consulting firms, advertising, public relations and lobbying companies, or even lawyers who advise on means of circumventing legislation and putting pressure on health groups.

Anyone who now works for and with the tobacco industry knows beyond a shadow of doubt that their work will result in unnecessary death and disease.

That is clearly not a concern for tobacco company executives, who know that they are in the business of peddling a lethal drug. But the outcomes of the work done by otherwise respectable consulting, advertising, public relations, lobbying and legal companies that work for Big Tobacco are no different. They should take policy decisions to eschew this evil business.

Failing such a decision, when their executives go to sleep at night they should spare a thought for the suffering, death and disease they are helping to promote. They too are, in Robert Kennedy’s words, dealing in people’s lives for financial gain. Is it really worth the money?

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