Denigrating the Tobacco Control Community

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“A last trick is to become personal, insulting, rude, as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand, and that you are going to come off worst. It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself, and in some way attacking his person … But in becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack to his person, by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character.”1

Historical – Let’s Call Them Health Fascists

The tobacco industry has long tried to marginalise its opponents by labelling them as extremist.

Forest’s Future Strategy on “Health fascism”

In his 1989 Future Strategy, the then-director of Forest, Chris Tame proposed that Forest align themselves with the libertarian cause whilst attacking public health advocates of “health fascism”.2 This aligned with forest’s 1983 strategy to become “an aggressive and intemperate adversary”.3 Both the Forest and the History of Forest pages have more examples of the results of this approach.

From 1996, a decade-long programme by Philip Morris called Project Sunrise attempted to divide and rule the tobacco control movement, in part by attacking them as extremists.4 In fact, this was built on the Forest strategy from the preceding years.

Shifting the Debate By Twisting Language

More recently there has been a concerted effort by pro-smoking bloggers to demonise the tobacco control community as “extremists”, “zealots” “fascists” etc. One pro-smoking blogger, Chris Snowdon, even talks about the “Provisional Wing” of the anti-smoking movement, invoking similarities to the Provisional IRA.

Trying to undermine people who are attempting to protect public health by labelling them as extremists is a deliberate tactic by the pro-smoking movement to marginalise the public health community. At the same time the industry and its front groups like Forest, realise that because the tobacco industry is such a controversial and discredited voice, that speaking on its behalf will generate little sympathy with the public. That is why the industry and its supporters use words like “Freedom”, “liberty” and “sane” to describe their activities.

What this does is shift the debate: It is no longer about an industry that kills one in two of its long term users, and has to recruit young smokers to stay in business, it becomes a libertarian argument about “freedom” and the excesses of the “Nanny State”. The language is always carefully crafted. The coalition of libertarian groups arguing against Plain Packaging in the UK calls itself the “Coalition of the Sane”. This infers that a public health measure which is designed to protect children from smoking is somehow insane.

The manipulation becomes complete when someone being paid by the tobacco industry, that is an industry with a history of deception and deceit, ends up being described as a defending freedom, and when someone who is working to protect public health, becomes an extremist.

The twisting of language by the industry and its supporters is becoming more pervasive and perverse. More than any other industry, Big Tobacco has a history of using front groups, often call “astroturf groups” to push its message. But whereas many think tanks and groups promoting smoking refuse or do not disclose if they are receiving tobacco funding, NHS No-Smoking organisations, which receive government funding, have even now been labelled as “astroturf” organisations.5

Other lines of consistent attack are that tobacco control scientists, publishing in peer reviewed journals are prepared to do anything for money, including deliberately manipulating statistics. Finally there are new cases documented on TobaccoTactics of intimidation and threats against scientists and tobacco control activists. The atmosphere which has been created (calling someone ‘health fascists’, Nazis, extremist etc.) also de-humanises scientists, and makes it more likely that a physical attack may actually happen.

Examples of Painting Public Health as Extremists

Pro-Smoking bloggers who denigrate the tobacco control community, include:

Read more about Tobacco Industry Tactics

TCRG Research

“They try to suppress us, but we should be louder”: a qualitative exploration of intimidation in tobacco control, B.K. Matthes, R. Alebshehy, A.B. Gilmore, Globalization & Health, 19:88,  2023, doi: 10.1186/s12992-023-00991-0.

“To be honest, I’m really scared”: perceptions and experiences of intimidation in the LMIC-based tobacco control community, B. Matthes, M. Zatonski, R. Ableshehy et al, Tobacco Control, Published Online First, 19 July 2022, doi: 10.1136/tc-2022-057271

Advocacy counterstrategies to tobacco industry interference in policymaking: a scoping review of peer-reviewed literature, B.K Matthes, P. Kumar, S. Dance, T. Hird, A. Carriedo Lutzenkirchen, A. B. Gilmore,  Global Health 19, 42 (2023), doi: 10.1186/s12992-023-00936-7

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  1. A. Schopenhauer, Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten – The Art Of Controversy, 1896
  2. C. Tame, forest’s Future Strategy: A Discussion
  3. forest, 1983, Is forest exportable,
  4. P.A. McDaniel, E.A. Smith, R.E. Malone, “Philip Morris’s Project Sunrise: weakening tobacco control by working with it”, Tobacco Control, 2006;15:215–223
  5. C. Snowdon, Astroturf Group Breaking the Law in Liverpool?, 22 April 2012