We can't believe we're still writing stories like this in 20-bloody-20, but it turns out a PR company that sent press releases attacking the NHS and local councils' quit-smoking initiatives was working for British American Tobacco (BAT).
PR agency Pagefield tried to paint the quitting initiatives as expensive to the taxpayer, without including information about how much money such programmes save the NHS. It sent the release to media publications across the country, several of which published the contents, and did not mention that it was being paid by BAT. Nor did the resulting coverage.
While it'd be easy to blame the newspapers for not checking which of Pagefield's clients might benefit from a release like this, it was mostly published in local newspapers which have been absolutely decimated in recent years. They just don't have the time or money to do investigative journalism or research, and are thus often reduced to uncritically rewording PR releases. We can't complain about that if we're not going to fund them, or even switch our ad-blockers off to read their free websites.
When the subterfuge was revealed by the Guardian, British American Tobacco tried to paint themselves as the good guys here. They said the campaign was intended to help people take up vaping. Well, knock us down with a feather, what a bunch of kind-hearted people, telling taxpayers they're spending £5,000 per former smoker without mentioning how much that saves the NHS, then trying to convince people to keep smoking, ideally with BAT's own vaping products. Surely the Nobel Peace Prize is on its way.
An unsurprisingly unnamed BAT spokesperson had this to say:
"We believe it is important to raise the debate about new, publicly available data which shows that the cost to the taxpayer of traditional stop-smoking tools has risen significantly compared to the cost of vaping.
We understand that when this data was originally shared with journalists it may not have been clear it was on behalf of BAT and as soon as we became aware, we instructed our PR agency to recontact all the journalists the next day to clarify this point."
Vaping has not been conclusively proven to be healthier than traditional cigarettes (which BAT sells lots of, from brands including Rothmans, Camel and Lucky Strike), and BAT itself describes them only as 'potentially reduced-risk products.'
Chief Exec of the anti-tobacco charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Deborah Arnott doesn't mince her words:
"This covert ad for e-cigs purports to be public information and has been covered as such by unsuspecting journalists.
BAT has an appalling and shameful track record going back generations. In just the last year, BAT has been found to have broken advertising rules by promoting its Vype e-cigs to young people on social media."
The company was also caught paying for a campaign opposing the government's ban on shop cigarette displays.
Smoking and related illnesses cost the NHS about £2.5bn – yes, billion – a year.
Meanwhile, British American Tobacco's website sweetly promises 'A better tomorrow,' before clarifying further down the page that it doesn't mean for you:
Well, at least they were honest this time. [The Guardian]