Philip Morris’ PR Campaign Against the Display Ban

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In autumn 2009 Philip Morris International (PMI) adopted a PR plan to defeat the display ban in Ireland and to delay its passage through the UK parliament. It intended to do this through third parties such as retailers’ associations, which the company labelled “trade stakeholders”, or Members of Parliament, called ‘political stakeholders’.
Also see the page on Philip Morris’ Regulatory Litigation Action Plan Against the Display Ban.

The Draft Communication Plan

PMI’s draft Communication Plan, which was leaked to the SmokinGate website, 1 said that:

Overall Objective of PMI Communication Plan

We are facing a POSD of Sale Display Ban proposal in the UK … This would be the fourth country in the world to do this and the second in the EU after Ireland. There is potential that if it passes it will lead to a further wave of countries adopting such legislation.

Our objective is to overturn the Irish legislation and also delay passage of of the pending POSD ban bill in the UK. By taking a stance on these types of legislation we intend to show that PMI will not stand by as governments impose regulations that are extreme, untethered to public health and just serve to shift the legal tobacco products to a market dominated by counterfeit and contraband.

The Communications Objective was to “Generate media coverage to raise awareness of the Irish court case and thus discourage the UK parliament for passing pending legislation on a POSD ban.”

The Stakeholders

The PMI Communications Plan identified key “stakeholders”, with which to approach with “key messages from PMI”:

The Politicians

PMI also identified key senior politicians to target in the then Labour government, such as Lord Mandelson, the then Business Secretary; Nick Brown, the then Chief Whip; and Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House. Senior Conservatives targeted included Mike Penning and Earl Howe, Shadow Health Ministers, Ken Clarke, the Shadow Business Secretary, and Alan Duncan, then Shadow Leader, along with Liberal Democrats such as Lord Clement-Jones, the Shadow Culture Minister.

The PR Companies

PMI used four PR companies in its campaign:

Project Clarity

In spring 2010, following the passage of the Display Ban bill through parliament, PMI mounted a new campaign to “create a post-election political environment that allows Government decision-makers to mitigate, through regulation or legislation, the effects of the POSD ban”.

Project Clarity

As well as a lawsuit, the plan included “Project Clarity – Grassroots campaign” against the ban by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. The leaked documents noted that “Retailers are essential to campaign success, so must be parties to the lawsuit and must take the lead in the communication effort”.
PMI organised “meetings / calls with trade associations /key accounts to finalise deliverables and messaging” including with the NFRN; the ACS; the British Retail Consortium; Confederation of British Industry; and Leicestershire Asian Business Association (LABA).
The Project Clarity campaign also included drawing up a “target list” of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, including mail outs and four regional events and campaign launch at NRFN’s spring conference. It also included media training for the NFRN spokesperson.
In April 2010 an article appeared in the London Evening Standard stating that “The Tories back industry appeal against cigarette display law”. 2
In response an email between Philip Morris and Gardant stated: “Don’t know if you saw this, but this is hugely important. Directly attributable to the grassroots effort”.

The “UK POSD Action Plan”

In the autumn of 2010, PMI launched another grassroots campaign, this time trying to recruit “100 active, supportive and committed MPs” as well as using the Leicestershire Asian Business Association (LABA) and other groups such as the NFRN and ACS.
The leaked Smokingate documents reveal the purpose of the campaign was to “build political pressure within the government for the DH Department of Health to remove the POSD plan. The plan is to secure 100 active, supportive and committed MPs who will, should there be a free vote on a repeal or retreat, elect to vote to support the local retailers in their constituency.”
The campaign was “designed to enable the retailers to talk directly to their MPs, for the commercial arguments to outweigh all other criteria and for the MPs to see local, regional and national benefit in siding with their local corner store and community shop”.


Key stakeholders to be targeted included Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and the Under Secretary of State for Health Anne Milton, with the following key messages from letters from NFRN, ACS, LABA, and the US Chamber of Commerce:

LABA’s website
  • impact on small retailers
  • lack of evidence to support the ban
  • youth smoking prevalence has not declined in Ireland since the display ban has been implemented
  • better regulatory options exist
  • illicit trade
  • if the Government is not comfortable implementing the POSD ban they should delay the implementation.

Other politicians, advisers and civil servants targeted were:

  • Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Mark Prisk the Minister for Business and Enterprise
  • Graeme Sandell, the Assistant Director (Health, Social Care & Pharmaceuticals) at Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister’s then media adviser
  • Steve Hilton, the director of strategy for David Cameron
  • Oliver Letwin, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office
  • Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General
  • Earl Howe, as well as 40 or so other MPs.

PMI also intended to hold “Third Party Stakeholder meetings” with the following organisations:

The grassroots plan also contemplated a “LABA retail poll — poll of retailers across the UK to highlight the views on the POSD ban. Results to be published on the LABA website and provided to MPs as part of the LABA political engagements.” However, on LABA’s website there is no mention of the PMI link. 4

Coordinated with Other Companies

PMI coordinated its campaign with other tobacco companies, such as Imperial Tobacco. Although having met Jacqueline Burrows, head of group public and political affairs at Imperial Tobacco, as well as Imperial’s Head of Group Corporate Affairs, Philip Morris noted that:

“Imperial believes that given their status and history in the market, they will NOT be able to stand in the background letting the retailers speak out as much as we might desire”.

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  1. SmokinGate, Philip Morris in Secret Cooperation With a British Health Minister, 20 December, 2011
  2. Nick Goodway, “Tories back industry appeal against cigarette display law” Evening Standard, 26 April 2010, Accessed January 2012
  3. PMI, UK POSD Action Plan, Undated
  4. LABA Website, Accessed January 2012