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The annual general meeting of British American Tobacco (BAT) was also the scene of significant participation by health agents. While less disrupted outwardly by comparison to its US equivalents (see above), shareholders had to listen to protests by a young Nigerian, Adeola Akinremi, that BAT was selling cigarettes in quantities of two rather than packs of ten or twenty, something illegal in the UK for many years. Jeffries Briginshaw, BAT’s head of international, political and regulatory affairs made the mistake of insisting that this was not the case; but Adeola promptly showed the meeting a copy of an advertisement providing clear evidence of his claim.
This was just part of a carefully planned campaign by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). With the help of tobacco control colleagues in developing countries, ASH had compiled a report, You’ve got to be kidding - How BAT promotes its brands to young people around the world. The publication, supported by evidence of the type so often seen in these pages, clearly illustrates that for all its public relations spin about corporate social responsibility, it is business as usual for BAT, in its marketing to youth, just as it is in terms of sales and profits. In 2006, total sales were the equivalent of US$49.6 billion, with profits up seven per cent to US$5.1 billion.
The report cites a wide range of examples of promotions that are clearly aimed at young people in the most vulnerable societies of the world. In the words of a South African agency, “Lucky Strike South Africa embarked on a radical strategy to re-launch and grow the brand by targeting the underground youth community—a community that is left of centre, which sets the trends rather than following them.” And Pete Doherty of Babyshambles, which a music magazine said recently was “as famous for cancelling gigs as they are for Doherty’s drug dependence,” is often photographed with his Lucky Strike pack. As a British marketing expert put it, “If you really want to create a buzz for your brand in the youth counter-culture, find yourself a bad boy pop star, give him your product and line up your favourite paparazzo.” Doherty features on the back of the ASH report.
Only tobacco executives could persuade themselves to say in public that the sort of marketing techniques illustrated in ASH’s report were anything other than deeply, fundamentally irresponsible. Yet during the meeting, Jan du Plessis, BAT’s chairman, claimed the report’s accusations were too general; and in a subsequent letter to ASH, the furthest he would go was to admit that there appeared to be “a couple of examples that may be in breach of our International Marketing Standards.”
To anyone who has seen the report, never mind the far greater volume of evidence it omitted, such a devaluation of its content, and refusal to accept responsibility, is nothing short of absurd. But BAT’s understatement follows a long and sorry tradition of British tobacco trade denial, going right back to the early days of tobacco control. For example, in response to ASH reports on illegal sales of cigarettes to children in the 1970s and ’80s, massive evidence of consistent breaches of the law were dismissed as rare exceptions. For those reports, ASH used a professional research company to send appropriately briefed and chaperoned children into tobacconists to try to buy cigarettes, to test the law the industry most loved to cite as safeguarding children from tobacco (thereby, the industry hoped, persuading the government not to tighten regulations governing promotion). The figure for breaches of the law was always the same: eight out of ten retailers, most of whose shop windows were festooned with seductive tobacco ads at child’s-eye-level, handed over the cigarettes. The industry’s response? By and large the law was working well, they would say, but was still broken very occasionally by “a tiny minority” who, regrettably, got “the vast majority” a bad name.
Are tobacco people really so stupid that they believe this sort of stuff? Or do they just parrot what their spin doctors write, and then privately have a good laugh, all the way to the bank? Perhaps Mr du Plessis, conceding so little, is just following a time-tested formula: admit as little as possible, hold your nerve, and the story will go away.
ASH’s report shows how remarkably consistent BAT has been in its attitude to making the most of diminishing opportunities for tobacco promotion, be it in response to conceding breaches when caught out, or planning alternatives to traditional advertising and sponsorship. Nearly three decades ago, ASH received a copy of draft notes summarising a BAT planning meeting. In those pre-Minnesota days such documents were rarities, but were soon forgotten when the floodgates of industry documents opened. The BAT ’Post-Jestbury’ document set the scene for much of what BAT does now, as evidenced by ASH’s report.
Starting with the blunt observation that “Prospects are poor,” the paper went on to emphasise “the importance of bringing plans to fruition and initiating action well before bans or severe restrictions are imposed is absolutely vital.” It said that “the most effective symbols, designs, colour schemes, graphics and other brand identifiers should be carefully researched so as to find out which best convey the elements of goodwill and image. An objective should be to enable packs, by themselves, to convey the total product message.” On brand-stretching, “opportunities should be explored to find non-tobacco products and services that can communicate the brand or house name, together with their visual identifiers, so that cigarette lines can be effectively publicised when all direct forms of communication are denied.“ And in a somewhat chilling but no doubt realistic assessment of what makes for tobacco promotions bans, the paper listed, among other factors, “the absence of civil and political unrest, leaving politicians free to indulge in so-called social reforming policies.”
We have seen all of this and more being put into practice over the subsequent quarter century. However, with tobacco control now being truly international, to an extent that even BAT could not have foreseen in 1979, attempts to pass effective legislation under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) will be seen by the industry as essential targets for action, to try to weaken and insert loopholes in draft laws. Such dangers pose the toughest challenge to the Conference of Parties determining the development of the FCTC to maximise its objectives “to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.”