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The smoke-free public relations industry says 'no' to tobacco

By Simon Chapman - posted Friday, 13 August 2004

This month in Sydney, the Australian public relations industry is holding a summit on corporate communication. Spin doctors for rugby to apologists for late trains will swap war stories about clothing naked emperors, turning frogs into princes and the art of the extreme corporate makeover.

Until this week, the meeting was to feature the Philip Morris manager of communications, listed to give an anodyne talk about "aligning corporate social responsibility with business objectives". After the Cancer Council wrote to all speakers urging them to reconsider sharing the stage with a tobacco company, at least two key speakers threatened to withdraw if Philip Morris was represented. The conference organisers now agree they misread the corporate mood and have "uninvited" Philip Morris to speak.

This is the second recent occasion tobacco companies have been shown the back door by their colleagues in the corporate world. In October, Ethical Corporation magazine is running a conference on corporate responsibility in Hong Kong. After others speakers protested, organisers removed Philip Morris and British American Tobacco from the program. A petition signed by about 80 global ethicists also condemned their participation.


So why the fuss? Philip Morris's core business objective is to get as many people as possible to smoke as much as possible of the company's brands. As the world's largest multinational tobacco company, it now blithely admits that its products kill.
But as if nothing had changed, it hoped to schmooze on stage at such meetings next to the Red Cross and the Sydney Children's Hospital and other last words in decency agencies.

Curiously, the company's state-of-the-art website omits to provide any estimate of how many of its best customers around the world die because they smoked the company's products. Let me assist. With 17 per cent of global tobacco sales, and 4.9 million annual tobacco deaths, an approximate figure of 8.3 million deaths over ten years might be a place to open the bidding. Smoking kills 19,000 Australians a year, more than 4000 before retirement age, more than those who die from breast, cervical and skin cancer, AIDS, suicide, alcohol and road crashes combined.

But the soothing rhetoric of "corporate responsibility" hasn't got time for such detail. The spin today is all about people knowingly taking risks, or perhaps something even more noble. As a tobacco strategist put it more than 25 years ago: "With the general lengthening of the expectation of life, we really need something for people to die from. Cancer may have some predestined part to play."

The conference program promised the man from Philip Morris would enlighten his audience on "choosing, and prioritising, which societal expectations to address". Here, the audience could have anticipated some pearls about its global program to prevent children from smoking, with details of how many governments have twigged that here's another example of public-private partnerships: get the tobacco industry to run your youth anti-smoking program.

But would he have been as candid as one of his colleagues who noted in a now public internal document: "This is one of the proposals that we shall initiate to show that we as an industry are doing something about discouraging young people to smoke. This, of course, is a phoney way of showing sincerity as we all well know." If the tobacco industry was sincere about not wanting children smoking, it could start by funding an independent foundation appointed by cancer councils, representing the millions it rakes in each year from underage sales.

The conference organisers were giving a stage to a tobacco company to gloat to the PR industry about its "strategies" and to portray itself in a good light. Philip Morris has been engaging in a global program of spending vast sums of money to publicise its support for programs such as domestic violence awareness, carefully selected to ensure that it is largely immune from criticism.


Who could attack anyone helping reduce domestic violence? In Australia it has even funded an Aboriginal health promotion campaign, knowing our indigenous populations have among the highest smoking rates.

When the tobacco industry succeeds in positioning itself as just another ordinary industry, it is halfway home in its normalisation strategy designed to soften government and community attitudes.

Conference participants would be unlikely to extend the same inclusiveness to arms dealers. Or mercenary recruitment agencies. Or the PR agency of a despotic nation with a taste for torturing its opposition. Or the gun lobby. Or a racist political party.

Each of these organisations is, like tobacco companies, also "legal". The PR industry has drawn a low water mark beneath which the tobacco industry occupies bottom-feeder status.

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This article was previously published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 August 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and author of Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control.

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