10A.6Mechanisms of influence—media relations

Last updated: May 2018     

Suggested citation: Vittiglia, A., and Greenhalgh, EM. 10A.6 Mechanisms of influence—media relations. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2018. Available from http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10a-6-the-mechanisms-of-influence-media-relations

10A.6.1 Media tactics

Media organisations have played an important role in the public’s perceptions of tobacco use and the tobacco industry. For example, evidence to support the association between lung cancer and cigarette smoking was abundant in the 1950s,1, 2 however inadequate press coverage by print media organisations—which traditionally received enormous revenue for tobacco promotion— delayed public knowledge and acceptance of the health risks.3, 4 One investigation found that acceptance of tobacco industry advertisements by newspapers and magazines was associated with a greater proportion of articles claiming that research on passive smoking was controversial, often based on select quotes from tobacco industry representatives.3 Many media companies refused to accept anti-smoking advertisements, due to their reliance on tobacco advertising.4

Compared to the US, tobacco advertising in Australia in more recent years is much more restrictive, and this may influence the content and tone of media coverage on tobacco control. A comparative analysis published in 2005 found that news coverage in Australia was significantly more likely to focus on the effectiveness of tobacco control regulations, compared to the US coverage.5 

Along with funding media organisations via advertising, the tobacco industry has adopted a range of tactics for promoting uncertainty about the harms of smoking in the media. One of the earlier documented examples was in 1953, when with the help of a leading public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, the tobacco industry formed a strategy that relied heavily on concentrated contact with journalists, editors, and scientists.6 Each time the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) issued a press release, Hill and Knowlton would initiate ‘personal contact’ with the media.6 (More detail in regards to tobacco industry funded research can be found in Section 10A.3)

Hill & Knowlton’s strategy was to attempt to persuade members of the media to: 

 

  1. Note that the industry completely understood its important public responsibilities 
  2. Affirm that the industry was deeply committed to investigating all of the scientific questions relevant to resolving the controversy 
  3. Urge scepticism regarding statistical studies 
  4. Offer a long list of independent sceptics to consult to ensure balance in their presentations.7

 

It also gathered information on new scientific findings so that the TIRC could prepare an attack as soon as the findings were released.6 On occasion, the TIRC would issue a rebuttal on new findings, prior to their release. 

More recently, tobacco control experts have identified several ways in which the tobacco industry can influence media coverage:8  

 

  • Using advertising money to control media content 
  • Ghost writing ‘pro-tobacco’ articles 
  • Insisting on ‘balanced reporting’—where the journalists include comments from tobacco industry spokespersons or reports of poor quality research—implying they hold the same weight in the evidence as more authoritative or unbiased sources
  • Misrepresenting facts, particularly in situations where there is no time to verify
  • Publically acknowledging the risk of tobacco use, but minimising the magnitude of the risk. 

In 2013, leaked information from Philip Morris International (PMI) revealed its media strategy to block the adoption of plain packaging in the UK.9 Using a similar strategy as it did in Australia,10 the documents outlined PMI’s plan to persuade the government that plain packaging would worsen illicit trade. Its media plan named several ‘independent’ third parties that would disseminate its message to the public. By using public relations consultants, it would infiltrate influential broadcast media and print media. The campaign was ultimately successful in delaying the decision on plain packaging.

10A.6.2 Media reporting on tobacco industry-funded reports 

Due to the high level of distrust among the public, the tobacco industry increasingly relies on third parties to disseminate its messages. Each of the major tobacco companies have funded major consultancy firms, such as KPMG LLP and Deloitte, to produce reports purporting to show the ineffectiveness of tobacco control measures,11-13 or to claim that such measures are creating a dramatic increase in the illicit tobacco trade.14, 15 Although major public health bodies have highlighted the methodological flaws in the reports,16, 17 their findings are often referred to uncritically in news articles.18-21   

Further, the release of the reports is often carefully timed. In the UK, greater press coverage of industry-funded reports on illicit tobacco coincided with consultations on plain packaging, and there is evidence that such coverage was deliberately solicited by the tobacco industry. Beyond methodological issues with the underlying data, the news articles themselves were often inaccurate.22 Reports can also be given to sympathetic journalists ahead of their public release, so that the findings can be widely disseminated without allowing public health experts the opportunity to examine or comment on the report’s validity.

10A.6.3 Cultivation of sympathetic journalists and columnists

The tobacco industry has also at times cultivated select journalists who are sympathetic to its messages. In 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) released its risk assessment that classified environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) as a human carcinogen.23 As part of its broader  response, the tobacco industry  relied on a select group of journalists to influence public opinion about and dispute the validity of the report.24 PMI recruited a network of journalists through an independent political and media consultant, Richard T. Hines. Journalists were also recruited from the National Journalism Centre (NJC), which was funded by Philip Morris.24 A 1994 report from PMI entitled “Tobacco Strategy” stated the following in regards to the NJC:

“As a direct result of our [PM] support we have been able to work with alumni of this program. . about 15 years worth of journalists at print and visual media throughout the country . . . to get across our side of the story . . . which has resulted in numerous pieces consistent with our point of view.”25  

PMI sought the advice of Hines again when it pre-empted the results of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) large European epidemiological study that would also conclude that ETS is carcinogenic.24  Hines suggested that PMI use European think tanks to identify journalists who could be sponsored by internship programs and write articles in support of the industry’s position.26

In the years following the implementation of plain packaging, The Australian newspaper ran a series of articles making far-reaching claims about the failure of the legislation. An analysis of the stories notes that Rupert Murdoch (owner of News Limited, which owns The Australian) was on Philip Morris' board from 1989 to 1998, and that some of the journalists and commentators who wrote on the issue had associations with the tobacco industry-funded Institute of Public Affairs.27

Tobacco companies have also funded journalists’ travel expenses 28 as well as provided other monetary gifts and awards. In 2001, the Kenyan media was divided after it was announced that British American Tobacco (BAT) would sponsor the country’s journalism awards.29 As recently as 2018, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) sponsors the ‘Specialist Journalist of the Year Award’ at the UK Press Awards.30  


10A.6.4 Media influence in the digital age 

The tobacco industry often uses social media to facilitate and showcase its corporate social responsibility (CSR). Many of the transnational tobacco companies provide regular updates on Twitter, the online microblogging platform where users publish and read 280 character messages, called ‘tweets’. BAT maintains several Twitter handles relating to media, science and careers. The BAT Australia account focuses heavily on making claims about the illicit tobacco trade in Australia and the apparent increase in tobacco-related crime.31 A post from April 10, 2018 read:

“Legal tobacco becomes more expensive. The consequences: increased funding for organised crime, prevention and control undermined and billions in lost Commonwealth tax revenue #auspol”

An analysis published in 2018 in the Tobacco Control journal demonstrated how the transnational tobacco companies are using Twitter to oppose tobacco control policy and shape their public identity.32 Tweets by the global corporate accounts of BAT, Imperial, PMI, and Japan Tobacco International (JTI) promote an image of being socially responsible as well as an enjoyable place to develop a career. Companies regularly ‘tweet’ their opposition to tobacco marketing and promotion restrictions, tax increases, plain packaging, and smokefree environments.32 The analysis noted that company tweets also frequently mention illicit and counterfeit tobacco, perhaps to appear in support of government agencies, while also undermining the effectiveness of tobacco control policies (i.e., by implying that tobacco control measures such as plain packaging promote the illicit tobacco trade). Tweets often claim the companies have a positive impact on society and the environment, including tweets relating to philanthropy, environmental sustainability, and reducing child labour. The authors of this analysis conclude that for the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to be effective, new media promotional platforms, such as Twitter, need to be included in the advertising guidelines and regulation of the tobacco industry’s use of social media is urgently required. 32  

Recent news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated June 2018)

 



References 

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17. Cancer Council Victoria. Industry opposition: Predicted effects on illicit tobacco. Plain Facts  2015. Last update: 2015; Viewed 4 April 2018. Available from: https://www.cancervic.org.au/plainfacts/industryopposition/illicittobacco.

18. Reynolds E. Illegal tobacco industry flourishing in Australia as government hikes taxes. News.com.au, 2016. Available from: http://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/australian-economy/illegal-tobacco-industry-flourishing-in-australia-as-government-hikes-taxes/news-story/c1d28c0a1919d0fbcc499579a2386b28

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20. Argent C. Tobacco crime is going gangbusters. The Daily Telegraph, 2015. Available from: https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/tobacco-crime-is-going-gangbusters/news-story/72e81f1d1d30281fee2d7d054fa614f5

21. Hurley D. Black market tobacco now 14.5 per cent of all consumption, illicit Tobacco in Australia report shows. Herald Sun, 2015. Available from: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/law-order/black-market-tobacco-now-145-per-cent-of-all-consumption-illicit-tobacco-in-australia-report-shows/news-story/76264fc955f613756ea58ca1c07dd2b8

22. Rowell A, Evans-Reeves K, and Gilmore AB. Tobacco industry manipulation of data on and press coverage of the illicit tobacco trade in the UK. Tobacco Control, 2014; 23(e1):e35–e43. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/tobaccocontrol/23/e1/e35.full.pdf

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25. No authors listed. Tobacco Strategy. Philip Morris Records,  1994. Available from: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/tfu82e00.

26. Muggli ME, Hurt RD, and Blanke DD. Science for hire: A tobacco industry strategy to influence public opinion on secondhand smoke. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2003; 5(3):303–14. 

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28. Pan American Health Organization. Profits over people: Tobacco Industry activities to market cigarettes and undermine Public Health in latin America and the caribbean. Pan American Health Organization,  2002. Available from: http://www.who.int/iris/handle/10665/173234.

29. Siringi S. Tobacco sponsored Kenyan media awards provokes anger. The Lancet; 358(9293):1615. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(01)06695-8

30. No author listed. Sponsors and supporters. The Press Awards UK  2018. Last update: Unknown; Viewed 5 April 2018. Available from: http://www.pressawards.org.uk/page-view.php?pagename=Sponsors.

31. British American Tobacco Australia. BAT Australia. Twitter  2018. Last update: 10 April 2018; Viewed 12 April 2018. Available from: https://twitter.com/bata_media?lang=en.

32. Watts C, Hefler M, and Freeman B. ‘We have a rich heritage and, we believe, a bright future’: How transnational tobacco companies are using twitter to oppose policy and shape their public identity. Tobacco Control, 2018. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/tobaccocontrol/early/2018/04/17/tobaccocontrol-2017-054188.full.pdf



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