Big Tobacco is watching you

Smoking any tobacco product, %, Males

% Adult Males who Smoke

Philip Morris International (PMI) have lodged a freedom of information (FoI) request with Stirling University, for information from research into why young people start smoking. They claim this is to understand more about a research project on plain packaging for cigarettes, a measure which has been introduced recently in Australia, and which is under consultation in the UK. In Australia the olive green cases are devoid of branding, in an attempt to make smoking less desirable.

The only feasible reason PMI would want to see this information is if the Stirling researchers found that plain packaging did not make smoking less desirable. If this was the case, PMI could lobby against such legislation on the grounds that it is ineffective – the fact that they wouldn’t need to probably wouldn’t stop them! Visible displays of cigarettes in shops will be phased out in big shops in 2012, and in small shops in 2015, a measure which tobacco companies fought by questioning its effect in discouraging smoking (again – why bother if it’s true!).

The more sinister potential motive is to understand the factors that encourage young people to start smoking. PMI wouldn’t be able to gain a competitive advantage from obtaining this information, because once it is in the public sphere, their competitors would access it and learn the same things. But the whole industry would become more knowledgeable about getting young people addicted to their drug.

Worries about the key to a new generation of smokers being released may be unfounded, however – big tobacco already employs sophisticated techniques to tap into the youth market. The constraints on overt advertising of tobacco products places a premium on implicit marketing techniques. These subconscious cues are present in normal advertising too, but are less noticeable due to the in-your-face nature of the explicit advertising. Companies target festivals as opportunities to legally set up stalls and promote their brands in an environment where a large minority of people will be underage (18 to buy tobacco). PMI brand Malboro faced claims that its logo remained on the F1 Ferrari car in altered form, after tobacco advertising was outlawed. And tobacco companies try to create a buzz around their products by communicating through social media.

Another motive of the FoI request has nothing to do with the results of the research however. It is to discourage such research in the future. Professor Gerard Hastings of Stirling University identifies two ways this could happen: “We have spent a lot of time on this. A research unit like ours simply can’t afford this. But for me the crux is the trust we have with young people. How easy will it be for us to get co-operation from young people in the future?” The first issue is financial, and the research institute will have a lot more to pay in legal fees if the request is taken to court. Additionally, current funders may well get cold feet if their money ends up putting data in the hands of big tobacco.

The second issue is one of trust, that of participants trusting researchers. Their personal details will remain confidential regardless of the outcome, but they were promised that their data would only be exposed to ‘bona fide researchers’. Even if future participants aren’t worried about confidentiality, they will be much less likely to take part if their data could be used to encourage rather than to prevent smoking.

Whatever the reasons behind the FoI request, the weight of public opinion remains against big tobacco. Because tobacco kills 114 000 Britons per year of roughly ten million users – over 1% – it is essential for cigarette manufacturers to get young people smoking. According to the above motives, PMI are willing to risk whatever remains of their public image in the UK in an attempt to stop research that would protect their customer base from getting hooked. It has the feel of a gambler who realises his winning streak is coming to an end, and so ups the stakes out of desperation. Unfortunately, the odds are still in big tobacco’s favour in almost every other country.

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