Tobacco industry public relations strategies

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

The tobacco industry has used a variety of public relations strategies to continue marketing its products despite growing awareness that they cause injury and death to consumers who use them. These techniques are often adopted by other industries that make products or engage in business practices that are harmful to health or the environment. One example is the American Chemistry Council's front group, Progressive Bag Affiliates, which has adopted a number of these techniques.

Early PR strategy development circa 1953

One of the earliest documents on the tobacco industry's PR strategy is from 1953, from the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton. It shows how the heads of the major American tobacco companies came together and agreed to engage in a massive, long-term public relations effort to confuse the public regarding information on smoking and health. The document consists of minutes of a now infamous 1953 meeting at the Plaza Hotel between the presidents of the major tobacco companies and representatives of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. The minutes state,

The chief executive officers of all the leading tobacco companies--R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Benson & Hedges, U.S. Tobacco Company, Brown & Williamson -- have agreed to go along with a public relations program on the health issue.

Liggett & Myers is not participating in the organization because that company feels that the proper procedure is to ignore the whole controversy ...

...They [the heads of the American cigarette companies] feel that they should sponsor a public relations campaign which is positive in nature and is entirely 'pro-cigarette.' ...They are also emphatic in saying that the entire activity is a long-term, continuing program ...Each of the company president attending emphasized the fact that they consider the program to be a long-term one."[1]

Creating "pleasure revenge" news

Commissioning research

The tobacco industry was a pioneer in commissioning apparently "independent" research as a strategy to support its public relations goals of protecting and advancing the industry's interests. The industry, through its PR firm Hill & Knowlton, created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) on December 28 1953. The creation of TIRC allowed the industry to claim it was funding research to find answers to the public's "questions" and concerns about the effects of smoking on human health. It also allayed people's immediate fears about smoking, while convincing them that something was being done about the problem. It also bought the industry time to deal with the issue on other fronts.

Commissioning research is "good advertising," buys credible allies

Commissioning research also helped buy the industry credible allies within the scientific community.

A June, 1990 Philip Morris memo describes a discussion between Maurice C. Kaplan (a Philip Morris stockholder and member of the Board of the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Cancer Center Foundation), and Chuck Wall, Vice President and Associate General Counsel for Philip Morris. Mr. Kaplan considered the public relations needs of the cigarette maker while working to convince PM to make a huge grant to fund research into chronic disease at his university. The memo describes the breadth and value of public relations benefits a cigarette company derives from funding medical research at such an institution. Kaplan argued the "public attitude toward the tobacco industry has rapidly deteriorated" and that "the announcement of a major research commitment will improve the public attitude (and the stock value)" for PM. Kaplan also suggested that "such a financial commitment will do much to improve employee morale and productivity." Kaplan sympathized with the plight of PM employees when he said to Wall,

"... employees must find it difficult to listen to the constant and consistent attacks upon the company without having their pride and morale significantly effected. How can they be proud of working for a company that is accused of making a product which causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year? [Kaplan] argues that the company owes it to the employees to give them something about which to be proud."

Kaplan proposed that PM first test the waters by making a $50,000 commitment to UCSD over 10 years to fund research in cellular medicine. "If this commitment is well received in the scientific community," Kaplan suggested, "Philip Morris [should] follow with a $450,000,000 commitment over 10 years to other institutions in the same field."

Mr. Wall expressed concern that such a grant would draw additional accusations that the company was misleading the public into believing there is still doubt about whether cigarette smoking causes cancer. He was concerned that the institutions might refuse the money. He wondered to Kaplan whether UCSD scientists would be willing to speak out favorably about the commitment and defend Philip Morris against attacks.

Mr. Kaplan assured Mr. Wall that "the institutions and scientists will take the money because they desperately need it." He said he was confident that UCSD scientists, including a Nobel Laureate on staff there, would defend PM and the award. Kaplan further suggested that money for the grant should "come out of [PM's] advertising budget" because it would "be the best advertising of all."[2]

Changing the focus

The tobacco industry works to shift the focus of public discussion about tobacco away from health and onto other topics. For example, a 1978 Tobacco Institute presentation about fighting a clean indoor air ballot measure in California states,

Our judgement, confirmed by research, was that the battle could not be waged successfully over the health issue. It was imperative, in our judgement, to shift the battleground from health to a field more distant and less volatile...and the best opporunity for an alternate battlefiled lay in the area of government intrusion into our lives.'[1]

Similarly, a 1990 Environmental Tobacco Smoke strategy document written for Philip Morris by the PR firm Burson Marstellar states,

...Equally, [these figures] reveal the source of the power of the anti-smokers "as long as they can fight the cigarette wars on a battlefield of health ...The industry stands somewhat flat-footed in response since it questions the fundamental promise (ie the existence of the health problem) -- a stance which puts it in conflict with the weight of public opinion."[2] (Italicized emphasis added).

A 19-page report prepared by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for Philip Morris (PM) in 1992 shows the PR company working to shift debates to topics that benefit the company, taking the focus off tobacco wherever possible, influencing journalists, the media and financial analysts, and creating a "halo effect" for the corporation. The summary reveals different tactics used for different audiences:

A section entitled "Ways to Win with Adversaries and Special Interests" says PM's overall objective is "To position Philip Morris as a globally concerned company, and to respond to the opposition." Strategies include:

  • "Change the focus of the issue (for example, shift the debate from solid waste to public health/public safety.)"
  • "Explore and exploit the opposition's weaknesses."
  • "Investigate legal challenges to opposition efforts."
  • "Develop alliances with other groups being attacked by the opposition."

A section entitled, "Ways to Win With The News Media" says,

  • "Begin large-scale program of journalism education (focusing on accuracy, accountability, objectivity, etc.)"
  • "Become a source of information and expertise on marketing, education, support of the arts...
  • "Ensure greater visibility of our cultural support and philanthropic activities."
  • "Develop more programs in conjunction with 'model corporations' to achieve a 'halo effect' for Philip Morris.
  • "Whenever possible, broaden the media's perspective by emphasizing Philip Morris' wide range of companies and products."

To "Win with Financial Analysts":

  • "Publicize corporate 'good works' to the investment community."
  • "Consider a change to a more neutral corporate name."
  • "Develop plans to counter negative media and analysts; develop plans to reinforce positive media and analysts."

The section titled "Ways to Win with Congress/National Government" states the "Overall Objective" is "to have Philip Morris seen in five years as a global leader at the local level, and as an important and reliable partner to enhance the economic well-being of communities shared by the company and elected representatives." Tactics include:

  • "Focus on issues that national governments find most important..."
  • "Dispel 'invader perception' in foreign countries (and states, where it exists) and work to become part of the community."
  • "Offer legal and regulatory alternatives."
  • "Educate lawmakers regarding Philip Morris' diversity and its economic impact jobs on home districts."

"Ways to Win with State and Local Governments" include,

  • "Develop support for politicians most likely to rise to positions of power later on..."
  • "Communicate themes of Philip Morris as a great U.S. and global company, to challenge critics head on and promote the benefits of growth generated by the private sector."
  • "Consider a corporate name change."
  • "Merge the lobbying efforts of Miller, KGF and PM USA."

Under "Ways to Win with the General Public," the suggestion to "Consider a corporate name change" occurs yet again.[3]

Arguments regularly emerge that shift attention away from smoking as a health issue. Examples include:

Bigger monster strategy

The "Monster Theory" PR technique, or "creating a bigger monster,"[4] relies on manufacturing fear among the populace to manipulate public opinion about an issue. For example, the tobacco industry has long fought cigarette tax increases by raising the twin specters of economic damage (job loss) and cigarette smuggling.[5] In a similar vein, the health insurance industry, through third parties, has raised fears of health insurance reform by frightening people with the specter of government-run "death panels."[6]

Use of "personal responsibility" and "choice" rhetoric

Broadening the issue

The tobacco industry typically diverts attention away from a problematic topic by broadening the issue to encompass other issues. For example, the industry broadened problem of secondhand tobacco smoke or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) into a discussion of overall indoor air quality, and moved discussion of the issue to include pollutants in the air other than tobacco smoke, such as wood smoke or automobile exhaust, or shifted the focus to the efficiency (or lack thereof) of mechanical ventilation systems.

Example document:

Reframing the debate

The "reframe the debate" strategy consists of moving the topic of a contentious dispute onto a wholly different topic. This involves making dire predictions of a more extreme outcome, portraying the original action as dangerous, tying activists to the dangerous outcome, linking the originally-proposed action to a fear-inducing outcome (e.g., loss of personal freedoms, government interference, higher taxes, Naziism, etc.). One example is R.J. Reynolds' Project Breakthrough, a multi-year advertising program aimed at linking programs to reduce smoking to Prohibitionism.[7]

The "reframing the debate" technique has been used successfully by the American Chemistry Council's front group, the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA), which portrays proposals to ban plastic grocery bag as costly, devastating to the economy, dangerous to the environment, causing more pollution, etc.[8][9] The PBA also portrays recycling the bags as the single, best solution and lobbies to have bag recycling programs replace efforts totax, ban or otherwise mandate limits to the use of plastic bags. [10]

Mobilizing employees

Tobacco companies mobilize their employees as well as those of their subsidiaries to oppose legislation the company does not like. See the SourceWatch article on Corporate mobilization of employees for more detail.

Manipulating legislation

When a public health bill is introduced, the tobacco industry will arrange to have their legislative allies insert odious amendments into the measure that erode support for the bill. One example of this strategy occurred in Washington state in 1988. Roger L. Mozingo, Senior Vice President of the Tobacco Institute, gave a speech that year in which he described the Institute's success in defeating a bill in Washington that would have prohibited tobacco use in hospitals. Mozingo said,

"This year in Washington state, we defeated every anti-tobacco proposal under review. Of particular interest was our work with one relatively minor measure ... a bill that would have banned the use of tobacco in hospitals. ... The measure originally had the full support of hospital administrators and the medical community. With the assistance of Gray Robertson's ACVA Atlantic and Covington & Burling, we drafted an amendment to the bill that would have required hospitals to meet rigid and specific ventilation standards in every operating theater, intensive care unit and other hospital areas. ... At this turn of events, hospital officials became unglued and openly broke with the medical community, dropping support for the measure and ensuring its defeat. This work should help us in the future as we continue to ... oppose more significant anti-smoking legislation in Washington."[11]

Related Sourcewatch resources

<tdo>search_term=shift debate</tdo> Additional suggested search criteria include words like "reframe" and "refocus" combined with words like "debate," "policy" or "issue," to narrow results, if desired.

Countermeasures against public health

Information on industry countermeasures against public health efforts can be found by searching the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library or the British American Tobacco Document Archive using the terms "countermeasure" or "countermeasures."

<tdo archive="us,uk">search_term=countermeasures</tdo>

Creating the illusion of support

Efforts to alter public beliefs about tobacco

Generating controversy

SourceWatch resources on tobacco industry harassment and intimidation

External resources on tobacco industry harassment and intimidation

Media manipulation

<tdo>search_term=proactive media</tdo> Additional suggested search terms to find information on tobacco industry efforts to manipulate the media can be found by searching the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library using phrases like "Proactive media relations," "Proactive media relations project," or "proactive media relations plan."

Related Sourcewatch resources

Undermining science

Tobacco companies work in various ways to undermine science, including (but not limited to) commissioning research, hiring industry-friendly "experts" to provide public testimony, making public statements, implementing countermeasures, commissioning publications, placing opinion-editorial pieces and making public statements.

Economic arguments

Deflecting blame

List documents about deflecting blame away from the tobacco industry (regarding hazards or illness caused by primary smoking or secondhand smoke)

Creating confusion on ballots -- alternative ballot measures

The tobacco industry's remarkable success at stopping cigarette taxes and smoking bans from being enacted in state legislatures prior to the 1990s caused public health proponents to turn to the initiative process (in the states where it is available) to attempt advance such measures. Since the mid-1990s, the tobacco industry has, in various forms, utilized an innovative "bait-and-switch" strategy to fight ballot initiatives that involves funding or creating front groups that advance similar-sounding, but markedly weaker, ballot initiatives. Such alternative initiatives serve to confuse voters and weaken support for the original measures.

A 1994 Lorillard memo written by James Cherry (Associate General Counsel for Lorillard) describes the industry's strategy to defeat a citizen-led ballot initiative in Colorado to increase the tobacco tax and earmark funds for tobacco control. The industry's "alternative initiative strategy" involves placing a slightly smaller tobacco tax measure on the ballot whose funds are earmarked specifically to non-tobacco related programs that the industry feels are "worthy and attractive," in order to keep any money from going to tobacco control. Cherry says,

In Colorado [to fight the citizen-led 1994 tax proposal], our choices are three:

1) Mount a campaign in opposition to the proposition,

2) Gather petition signatures, qualify for the ballot and campaign for a competing proposition which, though it would involved volunteering for some additional tax, would be much less tax than one which would be earmarked for crime prevention (or some other worthy and attractive purpose), but not for antitobacco programs;

3) Do nothing and accept the tax and the activity it may fund.[12]

The strategy of bringing a weaker ballot measure designed to confuse voters and derail a stronger initiative was also used in Florida in 2002. After a strong smoke-free initiative was brought by an Orlando public health group called Smoke-free for Health, a front group appeared called the Committee for Responsible Solutions that was backed financially by Philip Morris. The cigarette company-financed group placed a weaker smoking measure on the ballot intended to derail the stronger smoke-free initiative brought by the Orlando-based tobacco control group. The Committee for Responsible Solutions was headed by Tom Slade, a former Florida Republican Party chair-turned-lobbyist.[13]

The strategy was also used in 2006 in Arizona, when R.J. Reynolds formed the Non-Smoker Protection Committee which backed a November 2006 ballot initiative called the "Arizona Non-Smoker Protection Act" that would have allowed smoking in all bars and some restaurants statewide, overturn smoking bans and restrict and prohibit cities from adopting strict smoking bans in the future. [14] RJR contributed $10,000 to Non-Smoker Protection Committee. The initiative would have overturned existing smoking bans in cities such as Tempe and would prevented other cities from instituting them. At the same time RJR was attempting to influence the ballot outcome in Arizona, a similar strategy was being applied to thwart smoking measures in Ohio and California.[15]

Influencing decisionmakers


  1. B.C. Goss, Hill and Knowlton Background Material on the Cigarette Industry Client Report. December 15, 1953. Bates No. 82106769/6774
  2. Charles R. Wall, Philip Morris Meeting with Maurice C. Kaplan Memorandum. June 15, 1990. 3 pp. Bates No. 2023234424/4426
  3. Hill & Knowlton, Philip Morris Worldwide Corporate Affairs Network 20000 Corporate Affairs World Conference Workshop Results Draft Executive Summary Report. 1992. 19 pp. Bates No. 2023645195/5213
  4. Philip Morris Project Downunder Conference Notes Report. June 24, 1987. Bates No. 2021502102/2134, at pages 15 and 25
  5. DC Lobbying. Arizona & Colorado.
  6. James Strachan, Ph.D., Online Journal ‘Death panels’ and the health insurance industry, August 18, 2009. Accessed September 11, 2009
  7. R.J. Reynolds Project Breakthrough Letter/report. March 11, 1994. Bates No. 513206926
  8. Shari Wright, The Washington Informer Clean River Will Cost You April 23, 2009. Accessed May 4, 2009
  9. Don Loepp, Bag Ban Battle Comes to San Jose April 15, 2009
  10. DAvid Tewes, Should Plastic Bas be Banned? April 19, 2009
  11. Roger Mozingo Executive Committee Meeting, The Tobacco Institute, Remarks by Roger L. Mozingo, Senior Vice President, The Tobacco Institute, April 7, 1988--TI08820222, Stateline, 1757. Walter Woodson, State Tax/Pub Smoke 84-90; Speeches 84-88, Tobacco Institute. April 7, 1988. 8 pp. Bates No. TI08820222/0229
  12. Cherry JR, Lorillard Colorado Ballot Measure Memorandum. May 6, 1994. Bates No. 91814449
  13. Kennedy J, Orlando Sentinel Tobacco goes on offensive Feburary 6, 2002. Bates No. 2085763617A/3618
  14. Arizona Secretary of State 2006 Ballot Propositions & Judicial Performance Review - Proposition 206 Website, accessed March 25, 2008
  15. Smoke-free Arizona newsletter Big Tobacco behind deceptive ballot initiative. Two initiatives: One strong, one weak Excerpted from Smoke-Free Arizona, 5/31/2006., JoeCherner-announce list archive, Accessed March 25, 2008

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