PMI’s Anti-PP Media Campaign

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In 2013 leaked internal tobacco industry documents, including powerpoints, revealed the extent of Philip Morris International‘s (PMI) anti-Plain Packaging campaign in the UK during the previous year. The leaked documents cover the crucial time leading up to, and during, a public consultation run by the British Government as to whether to introduce the public health measure.
Whilst leaked documents are always intuitive, as they are primary material from a company, in this case the nature of the widespread and multi-faceted media campaign is extremely informative.
The tobacco company set out to exploit the political situation in Australia, the first country to introduce the measure and scaremonger over issues such as price, legal threats as well as the threat of illicit cigarettes.
PMI’s campaign was ultimately successful as it helped force the UK government to postpone any decision on plain packs.

PMI’s media objectives and strategy, PMI Corporate Affairs Update, February 2012 (slide 35)

“Ensure that plain packaging is not adopted in the UK”

The leaked documents outline that the “overall objective” of the company’s media campaign was to “ensure that PP is not adopted in the UK”;
In order to do this, PMI outlined its “Communication objective” which was to:

  • “raise awareness with decision-makers and general public about key concerns related to plain packaging – no evidence, impact on trade; legal issues and illicit trade (emphasis in the original):
  • “Highlight long-term and on-going legal case in Australia” (2-3 yrs);

This “wait and see” strategy would be highly successful and is a deliberate delaying tactic by the industry.
As the Australian McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer noted in October 2013: “Nearly two years after the passage of Australia’s plain packaging legislation, and ten months after it came fully into effect, the international legal challenges continue. Slowly. And the tobacco industry, which is directly pursuing one of the challenges and providing support to the others, is telling governments considering stronger tobacco control measures to wait until the challenges are resolved.” 1
This is exactly what PMI did in the UK.

Media Strategy

The primary media strategy was to persuade the government that plain packaging would make the illicit trade worse. The company once again used third parties to push its message on its behalf, re-iterating many of the same messages it had employed in Australia.
PMI plotted a “broad 3rd party media engagement strategy” to push the anti-plain packaging message, which included securing “high profile opinion pieces”.

What is the Message?

The documents outline how PMI ran its anti-PP campaign on four main subject areas, but its overarching message for the government was a simple one, that would resonate with a Conservative Government:

“Focus needs to be on economy. Wait and see what happens in Australia (2-3 yrs) before walking into the unknown (IT, compensation, impact on trade) with no evidence it will reduce smoking.”

Again, this “wait and see” line is a classic delaying tactic and one the industry has employed for decades. It is also the line that the UK Coalition government would eventually take when it announced that it was shelving the plans for plain packaging.
Indeed, when the measure was announced, one Conservative MP, Mark Field said that introducing plain packaging would have run “counter to our message that we are open for business”.
He added, that it would have cost the Treasury “significant sums of money” because the UK government would have to pay compensation to the tobacco companies, adding that the evidence that plain packaging worked was not yet “rock solid”.2
All of these lines come straight out of PMI’s media campaign.

PMI’s media messaging plan, PMI Corporate Affairs Update, February 2012 (slide 37)


The simple line to be pushed was that there is “No evidence PP will reduce smoking rates”.
The company also continued the tobacco industry’s capture of the “better regulation” debate and co-option of the language of its critics by calling for “evidence-based policy.” The tobacco giant wanted to also argue that, by removing branding, price would become the major factor in competition between the companies. PMI wanted to push the line that lower prices might lead to “higher consumption.”

“Illicit Trade”

PMI outlined four main messages to push on its illicit trade angle, which were identical to messages adopted by other tobacco companies fighting plain packaging in Australia and the UK:

  • “Will make counterfeiting easier”;
  • “Will fuel black market for branded packs”;
  • “Revenue loss to government and legal supply chain”;
  • “Cuts on resources / more resources needed.”

The message was simple: if the government wanted to introduce the measure it would fuel crime and lose money, which in turn would cut badly needed government resources – just at a time when more resources were needed.

“Impact on trade”

A slightly different angle, which had also been used in Australia, was to argue that plain packaging would impact the legal trade in cigarettes, primarily via pushing up illicit penetration. The presentations outlined how the company needed to argue that: “Plain packaging will hit legal sales revenues (illicit trade) and sales of other products”, which will impact on jobs.
PMI wanted politicians to believe that any further regulatory burden would hit an industry already reeling from the introduction of the display ban. To this end, a media message was “Already face burden and cost of display ban”.

“Legal Implications”

In another classic delaying public relations strategy, PMI sought to exploit the situation in Australia and argue that there would be legal implications for the British government if it adopted plain packaging.
The company wanted to highlight the fact that an Australian legal case had been ongoing for 2-3 years and that there were “significant legal issues associated with plain packaging”, such as International laws, treaties and trademarks.
PMI was keen to explore that plain packaging would, in some way, be a violation of the Human Rights Act. The introduction would also set a “dangerous precedent” in relation to Intellectual Property.

Media Timeline

PMI’s media activity timeline plan, PMI Corporate Affairs Update, February 2012 (slide 36)

PMI mapped out a media activity timeline for 2012 with key events planned around the four subject topics outlined above.

Who Are The Messengers?

The media plan then outlined six main types of 3rd party “messengers”, including retail groups, business associations, think tanks, anti-counterfeiting groups, researchers and international organisations. This a classic PR tactic by the tobacco industry: all the unsuspecting public see is a group of so-called “independent” third parties, without realising they all part of a media strategy by a tobacco company.


Just as retailers had been crucial in PMI’s anti-Point of Sale Display ban campaign, so they were crucial to the company’s anti-plain packaging campaign too. The PowerPoint outlined how the company hoped to mobilise “independent retailers” in seven cities.
Trade associations, such as the Petrol Retailers Association; Scottish Grocers’ Federation and Association of Independent Tobacco Specialists, were all to be used.

Business Associations

The business community were invaluable as third parties too. The British Brands Group; International Chamber of Commerce; and the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA – renamed as CITMA from 2016) were singled out for assistance.
So too was Peter Lawrence, the former Vice President of OHIM, the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks & Designs) in Alicante, Spain, which is a European Agency supervised by the European Commission. Before working at OHIM, Lawrence worked as Director of Trade Marks & Designs at the UK Patent Office.3
Although it is unknown whether Lawrence was paid by PMI for his opposition to plain packaging, within three months he was being quoted by the tobacco industry front group Forest and its anti-plain packaging campaign Hands Off Our Packs (HOOP).
The HOOP website said: “Lawrence’s concerns are consistent with a line of significant groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Anti-Counterfeiting Group.” 4
All three of these are outlined as PMI’s media messengers (see above and below).

PMI identifies key messengers, PMI Corporate Affairs Update, February 2012 (slide 38)

Lawrence was also quoted by Imperial Tobacco and JTI in their submissions to the Government’s public consultation on plain packaging.5 6

Think Tanks

The campaign strategy identified the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) as two think tanks that would push the anti-plain packaging message. The IEA has been particularly vocal on plain packaging. It was revealed in 2013 that the IEA receives annual funding from British American Tobacco.7 8

Anti-Illicit Trade

PMI wanted to use the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, which has the big four tobacco companies as members and had originally been set up by BAT in the eighties and undisclosed “WOR” as the two messengers. All the evidence suggests that WOR is in fact the ex-Policeman, Will O’Reilly, who is being employed by PMI to front its campaign to scaremonger over illicit.


The consultancy firms LECG and Transcrime were identified as researchers to be used in the campaign. Both organisations had worked on anti-plain packaging reports for Philip Morris International before.9 1011
Moreover, research undertaken by the University of Bath on Transcrime notes that “PMI’s success in bringing an academic body with a solid track record of criminological research into the debate on the illicit trade represents a new development which lends academic capital to the industry’s efforts to represent regulation as the main driver of illicit tobacco.”
The article adds: “Tobacco companies optimise this effect by failing to mention PMI’s funding when using Transcrime’s work in policy debates, creating the impression of a broad independent constituency in favour of the industry’s arguments against plain packaging”. 12
Again this is the classic third-party technique in action.


Another key strategy by the industry has been to enlist the support of international business organisations, and the list included the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), a subsidiary of the ICC, the Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy; International Tax and Investment Center; BusinessEurope; US Business organisations such as the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue as well as MARQUES, the European association representing the interests of trade mark owners.

Target Audiences and Media

PMI identifies its target audience, PMI Corporate Affairs Update, February 2012 (slide 39)

PMI identified which local and national media to be targeted by the campaign. The target audience included “Key decision makers, MPs, Civil Servants, Business elite, general public.”
The media was split into regional and national. “Regional radio and print were targeted in nine strategic cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, London, Bristol and Cardiff.”
For the national media, the two most influential broadcast media, Sky News and BBC were targeted. As for print, the list included: “FT Times, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, The Times, Mail on Sunday, Sunday People, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People, and Spectator.”
The trade press, such as The Grocer, Retail Weekly, Independent Retail News and Scottish Grocer also formed part of the target audience as were Intellectual Property and legal reviews.
Finally, PMI outlined which media and PR consultants would be used on the campaign, including:

  • Pepper Media for regional stories on illicit trade and plain packaging encouraging illicit trade; press releases, and “ad hoc projects”;
  • DLA Piper for stories on plain packaging in the nationals, including placing “exclusives, Op-eds, and thought provoking pieces;”
  • Markettiers4dc, a specialist broadcast consultancy;

Other TobaccoTactic Resources

More on the Leaked Phillip Morris Documents and the confidential lobby campaigns to derail Plain Packaging proposals:

Relevant Links

Indepth analysis of the leaked PMI documents by Corporate Europe Observatory:

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  1. J. Liberman, Waiting out the legal challenges to plain packaging – playing into the tobacco industry’s hands? McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, 4 October, 2013, accessed November 2013
  2. A. Sparrow, UK plans for plain cigarette packaging to be shelved – Department of Health says it will study impact of move in Australia before pressing ahead with similar law, The Guardian, 12 July 2013, accessed November 2013
  3. OHIM, Peter Lawrence,, accessed November 2013
  4. Hands Off Our Packs, Former Patent Office director slams DOH proposal, 26 April 2012, accessed November 2013
  5. Imperial Tobacco, Bad for business; bad for consumers; good for criminals. Standardised packaging is unjustified, anti-competitive and anti-business. A response to the UK Department of Health consultation on standardised packaging of tobacco products, 6 August 2012, accessed November 2013
  6. JTI, Response to the Department of Health’s Consultation on the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products, 3 July 2012, accessed November 2013
  7. Simon Millson, Group Head of Corporate Affairs for BAT, Letter to Deborah Arnott, ASH, 20 May 2013
  8. Simon Millson, Group Head of Corporate Affairs for BAT, second letter to Deborah Arnott, ASH, 18 June 2013
  9. J. Padilla, The impact of plain packaging of cigarettes in Australia: a simulation exercise – A report for Philip Morris International , at LECG Consulting Belgium, February 2010, accessed November 2013
  10. J. Padilla and N. Watson, A critical review of the literature on generic packaging for cigarettes, 4 January 2010, accessed November 2013
  11. Transcrime, Plain packaging and illicit trade in the UK: Study on the risks of illicit trade in tobacco products as unintended consequences of the introduction of plain packaging in the UK, May 2012, accessed November 2013
  12. G. J. Fooks, S. Peeters, K. Evans-Reeves, Illicit trade, tobacco industry-funded studies and policy influence in the EU and UK, Tobacco Control, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050788, 29 November 2012, accessed November 2013