Alliance of Australian Retailers

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The Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR) is a tobacco industry front group financed by Philip Morris, Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco (BAT). It was set up to oppose the Government’s introduction of plain packaging in Australia, and operated by the Melbourne-based public relations firm The Civic Group (TCG).

The AAR claims to represent “the owners of your local corner stores, milk bars, newsagents and service stations” and wants to “make the voices of small retailers heard, and to oppose plain packaging until it is overturned”. Its website indicates it is made up of three industry bodies:

  • the Australian Newsagents' Federation, an industry body representing Australian newsagents;
  • the National Independent Retailers Association, which represents independent retailers such as convenience stores;
  • and the Service Station Association, the industry body for independent service stations. [1][2]

Internal tobacco industry and AAR documents that were leaked to the media revealed that the Alliance was set up and run by the tobacco industry to lobby against plain packaging.

This is an example of Astroturfing, a campaign pretending to be a grassroots initiative, while hiding its true origin, goal and funding.

Front Group of the Tobacco Industry

When launched, the AAR did not reveal its industry connections and instead presented itself as a grassroots campaign created by small businesses against plain packaging. Leaked internal emails exposing the group’s links to the tobacco industry showed that the director of Philip Morris’ Corporate Affairs, Chris Argent, was instrumental in its establishment and day-to-day running. [3] [4] Other people mentioned in the files in connection with the campaign are John Scruggs and James Blakelock from BAT, and Jacqueline Burrows and Rob Koreneef from Imperial Tobacco.

The leaked documents revealed:

"The tobacco industry is not only funding the campaign being run by the Alliance of Australian Retailers to stop plain packaging being introduced, it is employing the public relations firm to run the campaign, approving who will do media interviews and managing the strategy for lobbying government".[4]

The TGC’s campaign objective was to "seek a change in policy such that there is no introduction of ‘generic packaging’ into the Australian market."[5]

The leaked documents included a contract between Philip Morris and TCG, as well as several emails exchanged between the two, showing the funding from the tobacco companies was:

  • $ 1,080,860 from Imperial Tobacco Australia
  • $ 2,200,000 from British American Tobacco
  • $ 2,161,720 from Philip Morris Limited

The website has since disclosed, in the small print, that the AAR is supported by BAT Australia, Philip Morris Limited and Imperial Tobacco Limited.

"Campaigning Was Done Openly and Transparently"

In a response to questions asked by ASH at the 2013 Annual General Meeting, Simon Millson, Group Head of Corporate Affairs for BAT UK said: “We refute the allegation that BAT Australia acted covertly in any way; all its campaigning was done openly and transparently.” By way of example he attached a copy of an AAR advertorial “clearly stating BAT AU’s support for the campaign.” Although the extent of this support was detailed in leaked internal emails (see above), the letter from BAT did not include any specifics on the budget for this support.

The head of Corporate Affairs did reveal that the company spent AU $ 3,482,247 on a broad media campaign against plain packaging in Australia.[6] It is not clear from the BAT letter whether or not this budget included the funding for AAR.

Lobbying Government

The leaked documents illustrate that the creation of the industry front group was to ensure political change. TCG said the campaign needed to:

"Build concern among the targeted decision makers that the campaign will not cease, is likely to increase and that it will extract a political cost… the campaign will keep going and keep damaging their political standing unless they change their position."[5]

Therefore, in addition to representing the voice of retailers and rallying support, part of TCG’s remit was to outline how the AAR would effectively convey its messages to the Government. For example, in response to TCG’s initial campaign proposal, Chris Argent requested more detail on how the campaign could influence government:

"Please note that contrary to the proposal the Coalition’s resolve is not strong. It is at best neutral. Please provide representative examples of the messages that might be delivered to Labour and the Coalition through the Government relations component of the campaign. Who will deliver these messages?"[7]

In response, TCG outlined a detailed plan on how messages should be delivered and who should deliver them. In correspondence with TCG, Argent asked "What messages will PML communicate in its own voice versus using third-party’s?"[7]

TCG was explicit that as part of the campaign they ought to target and discredit the then Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd:

"The campaign needs to repeatedly take Rudd off message and reinforce prejudices about him being superficial, making-policy-on-the-go, and ‘saying whatever he thinks people want to hear’."

Not surprisingly, the “campaign arguments” suggested by TCG were, and still are, identical to those put forward by the industry, including:

  • there is no evidence that this radical policy will work;
  • it will lead to an increase in illegal imports;
  • it raises the potential for compensation for the companies from loss of intellectual property rights;
  • it risks breaching Australia's international treaty obligations.

Be Brave!

The TCG was clear that in order to have an impact, their campaign needed to be "edgier and stronger than any considered by tobacco companies in recent times".[5] It also suggested that the use of legal tactics should be considered "if there is an attempt to put limits on the campaign’s advertising…arguing the constitutional implied right of freedom of communication on political matters" (See excerpt from TCG’s proposal to Philip Morris below).

Extracts from The Civic Group’s Proposal to PM on generic packaging

The AAR produced two anti-plain-packaging television advertisements:

Revolving Door

In June 2011, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Tony Barry, the former press secretary of leading Australian Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull, was working for the AAR, lobbying Liberal MPs and crossbenchers against the tobacco reforms. He was reportedly earning more than $20,000 a month. [8]

Health Groups’ Response

Once the true nature of the ARR was made clear, health campaigners launched a counter-campaign with the punchline "Guess who’s pulling the strings." [9]

The campaign split retailers, with major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths repudiating the campaign and the Australian Association of Convenience Stores withdrawing from it.

Website Hacked

In August 2010, the ARR website was reportedly hacked. Its home page displayed a message saying that the campaign had ended and conceding that "colourful packaging does indeed promote smoking".[10]

Relevant TobaccoTactics Resources

External Resources

TCRG Research

Visit Tobacco Control Research Group: Peer-Reviewed Research for a full list of our journal articles of tobacco industry influence on health policy.

Notes

  1. Alliance of Australian Retailers, Homepage, accessed June 2011
  2. Alliance of Australian Retailers, About the Alliance of Australian Retailers, Website, undated, accessed 8 June 2011
  3. The Tobacco Files -A definitive conclusion to the debate over plain-packaging,
  4. 4.0 4.1 Anne Davies, 'Big Tobacco hired public relations firm to lobby government', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 2010, accessed 8 June 2011
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 The Civic Group, Extracts from The Civic Group’s Proposal to PMI on generic packaging, Accessed February 2012
  6. Simon Millson, Group Head of Corporate Affairs for BAT, Letter to Deborah Arnott, ASH, 20 May 2013
  7. 7.0 7.1 Chris Argent, Email from Chris Argent to Jason Aldworth regarding submission of a proposal, 27 May 2010, Accessed February 2013
  8. Melissa Fyfe, 'Former Turnbull adviser heads tobacco laws fight', Sydney Morning Herald, 5 June 2011, accessed 8 June 2011
  9. Anne Jones and Stafford Sanders, Countering Tobacco Tactics, Action on Smoking and Health Australia, 2010, accessed 7 June 2011
  10. Jason Whittaker, Smoking kills, says big tobacco on hacked plain packaging campaign site, www.crikey.com.au, 30 August 2010, accessed 8 June 2011