Thursday, October 15, 2009

Imperial Tobacco’s smokescreen

A Canadian Medical Association Journal article published yesterday by Dr. David Hammond and a team of researchers at The University of Waterloo has unleashed a bad PR story that’s been decades in the making: Imperial Tobacco Canada’s alleged destruction of millions of pages of scientific studies, conducted between 1967 and 1984, which concluded that smoking is detrimental to our health.

According to the Globe and Mail,
"The tobacco industry did not make the findings public, instead denying for decades the effects of smoking. As the review notes, Jean-Louis Mercier, the chairman of Imperial Tobacco Canada, testified at a House of Commons legislative committee in 1987: "It is not the position of the industry that tobacco causes any disease. ... The role, if any, that tobacco or smoking plays in the initiation and the development of these diseases is still very uncertain.""

The Canadian Press reports that the files on the 60 studies were destroyed in Canada in 1992, on the direction of Imperial Tobacco’s head office in the U.K. – but that the information remained on file in the corporate headquarters. The CP also points out that the internal code-name for the buried research projects was “Janus” – a reference to the two-faced god of Roman mythology.

The tobacco industry has long had a tough row to hoe, PR-wise. While its product is legal, it’s known to be dangerous to tobacco customers – and to those who share the air they breathe (not to mention everyone else who pays for and relies on an overtaxed medical system). Collectively, the industry spends billions on lobbyists who work to keep government regulation as friendly to their business as possible (as do many other industries), and on initiatives that position the tobacco companies as good corporate citizens.

I attended a presentation on stakeholder engagement by John Clayton, Vice-President of Corporate Affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada, at the CPRS National Conference in Halifax last year. Clayton spoke earnestly about the challenges of communicating on behalf of a tobacco company, and deftly managed emotional opposition from some members of the conference crowd – leaving his audience with the overall impression that, while Imperial acknowledges that there are health risks associated with smoking, the company is committed to helping minimize those risks, while continuing to provide its customers with the legal product they want.

As much as I hated to admit it, the argument was reasonable; as long as the government allows the sale of a product, why shouldn’t someone sell it?

Now, however, Imperial may be running out of arguments. We can't hold a company accountable for decisions it makes (and products it sells) in good faith. But if this week’s reports are true, this is a textbook example of bad faith: the company not only sells a dangerous product, but it knowingly hid evidence that proved it and willingly misled its publics for decades, putting profit before people's lives.

If any of Imperial's goodwill relied on its ability to convince its publics that it’s open about the health effects of smoking and committed to looking out for its customers’ interests, it may now be heading back to the drawing board. The Globe and Mail story indicated that an Imperial spokesperson didn't return calls for the story; I'll be interested to see how the company positions itself.

Regardless, though, Imperial and its peers are lucky that their product has its own built-in relationship-builder – more effective than any stakeholder engagement strategy – that will keep customers coming back, and pressuring their governments to keep it legal. Nicotine.


  1. I saw this report as well, and two conflicting thoughts came to mind:

    a)How glad I was not to be a spokesperson for Imperial tobacco;
    b)How much I would like the challenge of being a spokesperson for Imperial tobacco!

    You have to think that if you can do John Clayton's job, you can probably represent anyone. Especially after this mess, though we'll see how it plays out.

    Note: I like the line "The role, if any, that tobacco or smoking plays in the initiation and the development of these diseases is still very uncertain." Research from out 'Stakeholders' assignment last year showed tobacco companies still convey a similar message, though not so bluntly.

  2. Somebody there doesn't understand how codenames are supposed to work. Naming their secret project after a two-faced god probably seemed clever at the time, but not so much now.

    I would have gone with something less conspicuous, like "Blue Harvest"...

  3. Rich: that assignment last year actually had its beginnings in the presentation I heard Clayton give in Halifax.

    Jay: I'm sure they're regretting the choice now! I remember having fun with codenames back in my corporate days... sometimes I "got" them, and sometimes I didn't!