Authors: Karen Evans-Reeves et al.
Background: Standardised tobacco packaging, which commenced in the UK in May, 2016, has been vehemently opposed by transnational tobacco companies. Previous research has concluded that companies invoke the existence of an illicit trade in tobacco to oppose tobacco control policies and exaggerate its true scale. The argument they make is that such policies will further increase this trade. Independent peer-reviewed evidence does not support claims that illicit tobacco increased after the 2012 implementation of standardised packaging in Australia. In the UK, leaked Philip Morris International documents revealed the tobacco company’s intention to utilise third-party “media messengers” to make the argument that the policy will exacerbate the illicit tobacco trade. We aimed to explore whether and, if so, how, transnational tobacco companies presented their data on illicit tobacco in UK newspapers during the standardised packaging policy debate and whether Philip Morris implemented its media messengers plan.
Methods: Articles about illicit tobacco published in English language UK newspapers from April 1, 2013, to March 31, 2015, from LexisNexis were examined for presence, nature, and timing of tobacco industry data, which included any illicit tobacco monitoring initiative commissioned or undertaken by transnational tobacco companies in the UK or overseas. Search terms included combinations of “illegal”, “illicit”, “smuggling”, “tobacco”, “cigarette”, all four transnational tobacco companies, and known tobacco industry consultants.
Findings: 428 articles about illicit tobacco were identified. 157 articles (37%) cited industry data, of which 90 (57%) referred to undercover test purchases, the remainder citing data from empty pack surveys, seizures, polls, or data of unknown methodology. 98 (62%) of the 157 articles mentioned ex-Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly, who conducts undercover test purchases for Philip Morris International; in 34 of these articles, this funding was not disclosed. Most articles were published in regional newspapers (77%, 121/157) and the majority mentioned counterfeit tobacco, so-called cheap whites, or both (72%, 113/157). However, the Institute of Trading Standards revealed that between May and November, 2014, over 70% of the illegal tobacco seized was tobacco industry contraband.
Interpretation: Philip Morris International’s investment in undercover test purchases appears to have enabled the tobacco industry to secure significant press coverage of its data on illicit tobacco. With over half of the articles in this study referring to a consultant working on behalf of the tobacco company, its plan to use third party media messengers as part of its anti-standardised packaging strategy appears to have been mobilised. Industry-funded third party spokesmen, notably former policemen, are now appearing in other countries, suggesting that this is an industry tactic that should be expected in other jurisdictions. Transparency in all media coverage is essential.
Read more: The Lancet