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The Marlboro Man's Last Stand

After years of tightening regulation and dramatic decline in adult smokers, Big Tobacco prepares its endgame: Teenagers.

In an orchestrated attack on cigarette regulation in the UK, tobacco giant Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco company, filed a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests in September designed to give them access to proprietary academic research on teenage smoking habits. It's no coincidence that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in November that the percentage of adult smokers in America had finally fallen below 20%. American teens smoke at slightly higher rates than adults, as do citizens of the UK. (Figures in the EU vary widely, but hover in the high 20s.) For the past month, tobacco firms Philip Morris and Gallaher have been busily engaged in a campaign to force academic researchers in Britain to turn over sensitive cigarette research—a campaign Philip Morris quietly dropped this week, after two months of adverse publicity.

The cigarette companies have also targeted the UK Department of Health, demanding access to the minutes of confidential meetings involving health department officials and cancer experts, “to the surprise of those who attended the private discussions,” according to Steve Connor, the science editor who spearheaded the investigation for the British newspaper, the Independent. The FOI requests, the Independent concludes, are part of “a global campaign by tobacco companies to fight any further legal restrictions of cigarette sales and promotion, particularly the introduction of plain cigarette packets.”

Hooking the developed world’s teen smokers is the one bright spot in Big Tobacco’s future, and industry executives know it. What Phillip Morris wanted was university research on a wide range of attitudes and behaviors teens hold towards smoking—especially their feelings about new plans for British cigarette packaging. Like the U.S. and Australia, officials in Britain are planning plain packages in a neutral color, with no brand logos, only the brand name in simple typeface plus warning labels.

Big tobacco appears intent on drawing a line in the sand any way it can over the issue of plain packaging. The U.S. and Australia have already mandated these changes—restrictions that aim to turn cigarette packs into either fright cards or the proverbial plain brown wrapper. But the British attack by Big Tobacco rocked the public health community, where confidentiality is often the keystone of successful research, especially into stigmatized issues such as underage smoking. Researchers were horrified, but legal opinion on the request was mixed. From the tobacco industry’s point of view, the problems began when Cancer Research UK, the nation’s leading cancer charity, bankrolled a study by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies at Stirling University in Scotland. The investigators surveyed thousands of British teenagers to investigate their attitudes and behavior toward smoking, with special emphasis on why they do or do not pick up the pack—and the habit. Needless to say, a study intended to read the minds of Big Tobacco’s target market would be met with parental fury.

With a database of some 5,500 teens between the ages of 11 and 16—who participated only on condition of anonymity—Stirling was unprepared for the Phillip Morris request. A separate FOI request by Gallaher, a subsidiary of Japan Tobacco International, demanded “all correspondence between the [health] department and outside organizations, such as the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the UK Centre for Tobacco Control studies, and the scientific research charities Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.” Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said it was clear that the industry “wants access to government documents and academic research for one purpose only to help it fight regulation.” The Independent said that in the case of the Health Department requests, “the company wanted to understand what materials were being relied upon as evidence for planned plain-packaging legislation.

But why are the tobacco firms so concerned with packaging? Let’s face it: The red Marlboro chevron, the cartoon camel, and the Lucky Strike bull's-eye are all hugely lucrative branding devices.

"All the experts say that the tobacco industry will fight tooth and nail to retain their branded packets.” says the Independent’s Steve Connor. “The tobacco industry claims it does not target children, but branded packets are undoubtedly attractive to this under-age group as well."

But why are the tobacco firms so concerned with packaging? Let’s face it: The red Marlboro chevron, the cartoon camel, and the iconic bull’s-eye of Lucky Strike (designed by the man who brought us the Coca-Cola logo) are all hugely lucrative branding devices. The industry is increasingly faced with the problem of finding legal space—any space—where they can exploit these powerful icons. Thus, the fierce fight over the package itself—virtually the last advertising space over which the industry exerts some advertising control. An internal cigarette industry analysis released in 2007 put the matter forthrightly: “If you smoke, a cigarette pack is one of the few things you use regularly that makes a statement about you. A cigarette pack is the only thing you take out of your pocket 20 times a day and lay out for everyone to see.”

The trade magazine World Tobacco counseled companies that “if your brand can no longer shout from billboards, let alone from the cinema screen or the pages of a glossy magazine… it can at least court smokers from the retailer's shelf, or from wherever it is placed by those already wed to it.”

In a report issued by Cancer Council Victoria recently, Australian researchers analyzed 24 published studies and concluded that “the cigarette pack has become the key  marketing tool employed by the tobacco industry to attract and retain customers.”

Some of the Stirling data is already accessible in published studies. The July issue of Journal of Tobacco Control featured an article about the influence of packaging on the behavior of young smokers, showing that those with plain packets took out their cigarettes less frequently, handled the cigarettes less often, and sometimes hid the packs. Lead author Dr. Crawford Moodie said the study, which was based on only 50 young adult smokers, “confirms the lack of appeal of plain packs.” Moodie said his group was “now looking to build on this research to understand more about the impact of packaging on smokers.” Big Tobacco wants to understand more about it, too, so it can find ways of making plain packaging more appealing. And it wants to use Cancer Research’s own data for the purpose.

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