PMI’s “Illicit Trade” Anti-Plain Packaging Campaign

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Illicit Trade Headlines


In 2013, leaked documents from Philip Morris International (PMI) revealed the extent of the tobacco company’s public relations and lobbying campaign to derail the government’s proposals and public consultation on plain packaging.

  • See below for links to other pages on the leaked documents.

The campaign used a variety of arguments against plain packaging, one of the most important being that the measure would increase the amount of illicit tobacco and cigarettes sold in the United Kingdom. The industry had used the argument on illicit before, in Australia, (Plain Packaging in Australia) and in Europe, against the Tobacco Products Directive, (PMI’s Lobbying Campaign to Undermine the TPD).
The illicit argument became a central pillar of PMI’s widespread media campaign, (see PMI’s Anti-PP Media Campaign) despite the fact that the major tobacco companies have a history of involvement in smuggling their own cigarettes. See for instance:

Main Scaremongering Messages

PMI Analysis of Press Coverage

The main messages the company wanted to push in its campaign were listed in one of the slides in the leaked presentation:

  • Cost to government;
  • Illegal cigarettes content;
  • Crime;
  • Fuelled by tax increases;
  • Harms legitimate business

Essentially PMI was trying to scaremonger the government into inaction by arguing that any introduction of plain packaging would lead to an increase in illicit cigarettes and crime. The company used these messages as part of its “engagement strategy” with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), as well as in its media campaign in the regional and national press.

Empty Pack Surveys

All the company needed to do was to generate data and media stories that argued that illicit cigarettes were a growing problem. From mid-2011, the company started to place stories in the press that focused on the increase of the use of illicit cigarettes.
The percentages were based on a series of Empty Pack Surveys (EPS) – a flawed method of measuring illicit favoured by the tobacco industry. Researchers collect discarded cigarette packets from various locations and from there extrapolate the percentage of illegal versus genuine cigarettes for the whole country.
The method has been criticised by academics and other experts.
One recent academic article has noted that there is “growing evidence” which suggests that “EPS sampling may be designed to increase the likelihood of finding non-domestic/illicit packs” and that “EPSs may overestimate illicit.”1
Despite concerns such as these, PMI using EPS data started placing stories about illicit in the press, working with the ex-Policeman, Will O’Reilly.

PMI Analysis of Media Stories it Generated

The company analysed the amount of “illicit trade headlines” the strategy had generated. PMI noted it had succeeded in getting coverage in the BBC, Daily Mail, The Guardian, Financial Times, Sunday Mirror, Daily Star and Evening Standard, as well as “widespread regional coverage”.

Other TobaccoTactic Resources

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

External Resources

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

TCRG Research

Plain Packaging

Illicit Trade

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  1. Towards a greater understanding of the illicit tobacco trade in Europe: a review of the PMI funded ‘Project Star’ report, A. Gilmore, A. Rowell, S. Gallus, A. Lugo, L. Joosens, M. Sims, 2013, Tobacco Control, 23(e1), e51-e61, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2013-051240