News

Big tobacco's background campaign for e-cigarettes

Adam Gartrell, Canberra Times

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is running an under-the-radar campaign to convince federal politicians to legalise e-cigarettes containing nicotine, with anti-smoking campaigners accusing the company of using the same ‘‘astroturf’’ tactics it used in its fight against plain packaging.

The multinational has been using its offshoot smokers’ rights lobby group – dubbed ‘‘I Deserve To Be Heard’’ – to contact Australian smokers and vapers and urge them to make submissions to a parliamentary probe into the use and marketing of e-cigarettes.

The company’s campaign – along with a coordinated push from Australia’s online vaping community – has seen the inquiry inundated with submissions from people who say vaping has helped them quit smoking and dramatically improved their health.

While health groups in Australia and across the globe continue to warn about the potential risks of nicotine vaping, 107 of the 108 submissions so far loaded on the inquiry’s website are strongly pro-vaping – and the vast majority follow a similar ‘‘personal story’’ template.

World renowned tobacco control expert Simon Chapman, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, said Philip Morris and other interest groups were ‘‘astroturfing’’ – trying to create the illusion of a big grass-roots pro-vaping movement that does not really exist.

‘‘They’ve been actively recruiting people to put in submissions,’’ Professor Chapmen told Fairfax Media.

E-cigarettes are a multi-billion-dollar business overseas but the sale and personal possession of nicotine e-cigarettes is illegal in Australia. Health groups fear that if the government relaxes the rules it could lead to a wave of seductive advertising that would lure young people.

Philip Morris’s new campaign comes after it was ordered to pay the Australian government millions in legal costs over its failed bid to kill off world-first plain packaging laws.

The company fired back into life late last month with an email blast to members calling on them to ‘‘make their voices heard’’, as the company intensifies its push into the increasingly lucrative international e-cigarette market.

Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon said the tobacco industry was aggressively pursuing the potential of e-cigarettes because it had given them the opportunity to ‘‘rebrand’’ themselves as part of the effort to reduce smoking– even there is no evidence e-cigarettes work as a deterrent.