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Both Sides of the Argument? JTI-MacDonald’s Anti-Plain Packaging Spin in Canada

1 Nov, 16 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor


Julia Smith

Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University

JTI-MacDonald recently launched a multimedia campaign, Both Sides of the Argument, to sway public opinion against proposed plain packaging legislation in Canada. The campaign includes advertisements on popular radio stations, a website, posters in restaurant and bar bathrooms, advertisements in national newspapers and sponsored posts on Facebook. The advertisements and website state that they are “A JTI-Macdonald Corporation Initiative”, however JTI-Macdonald is not a household name in Canada. It is therefore unlikely the viewers/listeners will recognize that the campaign is funded by a tobacco company.

The arguments, presentation and even name of the campaign is remarkably similar to one implemented by British American Tobacco New Zealand, titled ‘Agree–Disagree’, which coincided with the NZ government’s standardized packaging consultations. Analysis of the New Zealand campaign found that messaging misrepresented the intent of the proposed legislation, claimed standardized packaging would harm all brands, and used vague premises as a basis for claiming negative outcomes. The commonalities between the campaigns suggest similar strategies might be used elsewhere, and also creates opportunities for public health advocates to counter industry opposition to plain packaging.

While the Canadian campaign purports to present ‘Both Sides of the Argument’, it quite clearly represents only one perspective. A section of the website, subtitled Has Plain Packaging worked in Australia?, first presents “The evidence for why plain packaging worked in Australia”, appearing to represent the pro-plain packaging camp. However, the text underneath states that there is no evidence plain packaging contributed to declines in smoking, linking to an Australian government site that documents smoking prevalence, but does not mention plain packaging. Underneath this “the evidence for why plain packaging did not work in Australia” is presented. The claim that plain packaging is ineffective is repeated, this time supported by links to JTI-funded research and press releases. ‘Both sides of the argument’ conveniently supports the same conclusion by linking only to JTI funded  ‘research’ and spin.Campaign messages are continually buttressed by weak evidence from organizations with known links to the tobacco industry. For example the site refers to an Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) report that “demonstrates plain packaging policy is destined to fail.” Not only does the IEA have a long and well documented history of producing research to counter tobacco control initiatives while receiving funding from the industry, the “report” is in fact a brief blog, which in turn links to an even shorter news report that cites statistics without reference or explanation.

JTI-MacDonald did commission an independent firm, Forum Research, to poll 2000 Canadians on their views about plain packaging. A quick scan of the research report reveals numerous weaknesses. Many of the questions are clearly leading. Take, for example, the following: “Some people say that a change to ‘plain’ packaging from multiple different brand designs will make it easier to produce fake cigarette packaging and increase the amount of illegal cigarettes sold in Canada. Do you think this is unlikely or likely?” In response to a question asking if respondents could explain plain packaging to someone else only 17% answered positively. Considering these results, the survey essentially documents the opinions of uninformed individuals. The sampling method in general is unclear, with the only details provided being that 2301 regionally and demographically representative Canadians completed an online survey during a week in August. How the participants were selected to ensure the sample was ‘demographically representative’ is not stated.

Encouragingly, for tobacco control advocates, comments on the campaigns Facebook posts reveal that not everyone is falling for the spin. Of the 50 most recent comments (as of 24 October 2016) under a Both Sides of the Argument post from 4 October 2016, 19 point out the weaknesses in the campaign, identify it as astroturfing, and call out the tobacco industry for promoting junk science.


Finally, some truth in advertising from the tobacco industry

21 Sep, 16 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

Stan Shatenstein

Editor & Publisher, STAN Bulletin

JTI-Macdonald is one of Canada’s big three tobacco firms. On Saturday 17 September, it ran an ad in several of Canada’s leading newspapers to argue against tobacco plain packaging legislation, which the Canadian government is currently considering. The ad is shown here:

Advertisement by JTI-Macdonald against tobacco plain packaging in Canada

Advertisement by JTI-Macdonald against tobacco plain packaging in Canada












The ad may have been intended to argue against plain packaging, but by loading a cigarette pack with 20 bullets, the company has inadvertently reminded Canadians that the product it sells is actually a deadly weapon – a smoking gun, by an unconscionable industry’s own unconscious admission.


Canada: What were they smoking? Experts want health on tobacco litigation agenda

25 Sep, 14 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

Garfield Mahood

President, Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud


Canada what were they smoking

An image from the Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud, Canada

In the early 1980’s, Canada had one of the globe’s highest rates of per capita tobacco consumption. But in less than two decades, in response to aggressive campaigning by health NGOs, Canada experienced arguably the largest decline in use anywhere.

Gains were made on many fronts: through increases in tobacco taxation, a world precedent-setting ban on tobacco advertising, breakthroughs in smoke-free air travel and federally-regulated workplaces, and from landmark tobacco package warnings.

But Canada can no longer claim that it is at the forefront of responses to the tobacco epidemic. In 2010, the neo-liberal federal government cancelled longstanding plans for a renewal of stale package warnings. Then, in the face of fierce opposition, it reversed itself and a year later mandated new warnings which discarded several of the precedent-setting elements of Canada’s ground-breaking 1994 and 2001 warning systems.

Then, the health minister cancelled the entire grants and contributions component of the national tobacco strategy. This cut millions of dollars of funding from troublesome NGOs which had pressed the government to produce the up-dated warnings. Needless to say, plain packaging is no longer on the government’s agenda.

One of the most severe criticisms of the federal government, said Western University law professor Robert Solomon, “stems from the sweetheart tobacco smuggling settlements that it negotiated with Big Tobacco in 2008 and 2010. In those settlements, health remedies to deal with the illness caused by the smuggling fraud appear not to have been given any consideration.”

Unlike American tobacco litigation, criminal investigations and civil lawsuits in Canada produced settlements of pennies on the dollars claimed, no disclosure of industry documents and no real incentives for the manufacturers to change their behaviour. Tobacco executives facing jail time had their charges stayed.

According to William Marsden of Montreal’s The Gazette, the tobacco executive who planned much of the smuggling told him that the federal police knew “all about this. They could have walked in and just handcuffed everybody at Imperial [Canada’s largest tobacco company. The government]…did not have the guts of a field mouse to go after the executives of the company….”

Now, Canada’s provinces are suing tobacco manufacturers and their international parents to recover the health care costs associated with smoking which resulted from industry fraud and conspiracy over five decades. The governments allege that the companies involved lied about risks, addiction, ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarettes, and second-hand smoke.

The claims filed to date by nine provinces exceed CDN $110 billion. If this wrongful behaviour is proven in court, as it was in the USA, it will constitute the largest fraud in the history of Canadian business. It certainly was the most destructive with estimates that industry deception caused or contributed to up to two million deaths in Canada since 1964.

The smuggling settlements trivialized the harms caused by the fraud. So the Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud (CJTF) was incorporated, to advocate for positive health outcomes from the health care cost recovery litigation.

As mentioned in the September 2014 Tobacco Control, the CJTF pressed provincial and territorial governments to take Big Tobacco to trial, insist on the disclosure of industry documents, and allocate a significant portion of monies recovered to an arms-length-from-government agency with a mandate to reduce tobacco industry-caused disease. The CJTF submission was signed by the heads of 60 health organizations, by the deans of schools of public health, and by professors of medicine and law, 137 signatories in all.

It will take a determined health community to put public health into the litigation deliberations and to offset years of federal government back-sliding.

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