Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

My brush with Big Tobacco…

The Tobacco industry has always had a very suspect relationship with politics and government. People are very dubious about the motives of an industry with such a bad reputation. A side effect of the advertising and sponsorship ban on cigarettes was that enormous budgets were freed up for spending on lobbying. Manufacturers have not been shy about using this budget.

It did interest me this week to see that Big Tobacco has employed a range of lobbyists from what might be called the ‘FG’ family to make its case in Ireland. This got me thinking to my own slight experience of the industry and how it simply has not changed and doesn’t seem able to get the problems it faces. The reasons for this range from the simple to the downright wrong. Big Tobacco like to have people who know politicians because they still believe in an old fashioned approach of putting pressure on ang getting some kind of favour.

Let me paint a bit of background. I worked in lobbying for over a decade, I was close to many figures in FF and that was my background. I was then and remain now, a man without great wealth. It’s never easy popping from one project to another never sure where next months mortgage is coming from but such is the life we lead. I am also a non smoker and do not like the smoking habit. I am, however, a person with a mind that likes to see all sides of an argument, that always tries to empathise with other views and understand them. Tobacco is an industry with lots of jobs etc. It’s also true that I know many smokers who want to smoke and like smoking and see it very much as their own personal choice and freedom. There is some merit in that. When faced with any project I try to detach myself from my own personal bias and opinion and try to offer the best advice I can to any client.

Over the years Tobacco came calling (hoping of course that I would talk to various friendly Ministers) and I write about it now because it’s a very strange experience indeed and perhaps gives some insight into the mind of Big Tobacco, the views it holds and most importantly, why I think they are on a hiding to nothing due to their own intransigence.

There are 3 major tobacco companies that approached me. One met with me in their offices in Dublin. They were talking to a lot of potential lobbyists and the interview was fairly straight forward. It was going well enough until they asked me what the future was for Tobacco in Ireland, when I gave them the grim reality and told them they had to fight a rearguard action, they halted me. This was of no interest to them; they wanted to know how I would go about repealing the Smoking ban (which was a few years old). I told them this was impossible, that game was over and they had to concentrate on the challenges yet to come. The interview got awkward and ended shortly after. It went no further.

Another major company approached me after this. They were somewhat more accepting of the position but only grudgingly so. These guys were big on the personal freedoms and rights issues. I met with them 3 or 4 times and was introduced to ever higher levels of their organisation. Eventually we reached a point were they wanted me to outline a plan for them around the personal freedoms thing. We discussed it and I pointed out that while the argument was strong, it had one inherent weakness, smoking doesn’t just affect the smoker it also affects those around them. I made the case whereby Tobacco would have to fund and support ‘responsible smoking’, get ahead of the game and convince smokers that it was something they could do away from non smokers. I made the point that if a smoker gets off a bus and lights up with no regard for the fact that a mother has a child in a buggy behind them, then when the smoke hits that buggy, they have made the mother an ardent anti-smoking supporter right there. I said that public opinion was simply too ill disposed to smoking to ignore this. The point was then made to me that I would need to be careful. There was a danger about pioneering any such policy in Ireland because eventually I would be expected to move elsewhere and that policy would follow me and I might not want to instigate it in another country. I was suspicious of this. After all why would I not want to instigate it if it was the right approach and right thing to do? Unless of course they didn’t really believe all that. It then became clear that I had no interest in moving abroad after a few years, I had no ambition to end up in New York and I realised at that point that these guys were no longer committed to the market here. Finally the conversation increasingly turned to my contacts, who I knew, how friendly was I with them, could I call them up, could I meet them? I had no difficulty in terms of my contact book but I have always been sensitive about how it’s used. The days are long gone when you ring up a minister or wine and dine them and tell them to just do you a favour. Meeting politicians is easy. The real work is in producing a workable plan, in showing hard evidence and in presenting a genuine argument. Sadly I began to feel that this was less what they wanted and their real hope was that I could call in some kind of favour. This was laughable, I said straight out that if they had that approach to lobbying then they could expect to be defeated on every issue time and time again because the Minister will not go against a popular decision that is seen as a good thing to do without hard evidence. It was after that that they decided I wasn’t the person for them.

When a 3rd and very major company approached me about 2 years later I was very dubious. I agreed to meet their contact in Ireland and I laid out my case plainly. I was in no mood to have my time wasted again. This company was very good. The people I met were all very friendly and very helpful. They agreed with many of my arguments. They saw a very specific need for a change in approach to the Irish market in particular. At this stage they saw Ireland as a country that was leading the way in cutting their industry and they needed to stop this. Plain packaging was something that terrified them and they were busy trying to build a new image. They accepted the wrongs of their product, or so they said, they were doing huge research to lessen the harmful effects of cigarettes and trying to change the ingredients all the time. They were even looking at non addictive brands and other such ideas. This all seemed reasonable. I met with them on a couple of occasions and they made clear that they felt I was the guy for the job. They flew me to London, picked me up by limousine, and treated me very well indeed. The only concern I had again was that despite all the talk of working on new ideas I felt there was still an over reliance on wanting to use political contacts. They were also highly secretive and believed meetings with government should not be discussed publicly and only be held quietly. I argued that this would mean that the public would rightfully be suspicious, that we would only get the politicians in trouble. They were not convinced but said it was something that could be worked on later. However, it was all from the UK and Ireland section. Rather unexpectedly, I was asked to meet with one of their International Directors. We sat in a coffee area very informally and chatted and I was, I must admit, shocked. He again, asked me how I would work the ‘Irish situation’. I discussed it at length but soon saw he was becoming uneasy. He said to me quite plainly, ‘even if I agree with you in terms of Ireland, what you propose is not feasible, internationally’. I asked him why not. He said that my approach would have to be very different to what I wanted to do, because I had to be mindful of the international market. His words stuck with me ‘We cannot, as a company, admit wrongs or try assist people in coming off cigarettes just so we are allowed retain the voluntary smoker market in Ireland…we have other markets, much larger markets and what we do in Ireland we would be expected to do there.’ I suggested to him that seeing as the company was investing so much on research surely they saw that it was endgame and they needed to have a different approach everywhere? In just that moment I felt the mask slip away from all the company had shown me. He shrugged and smiled and told me ‘you must remember Ireland is a small market, there are countries where we are still free to sell our product as we wish, if we ever agree and accept things in Ireland, then we will be told to apply the same thinking across the board.’ In an instant it was all clear. The guys in Ireland and the UK knew the game was up, they had no argument it was all just a stalling mechanism. There are better markets in the developing world where kids can still be targeted, where informing about the risks to health is not important, where the content of the cigarette is not a problem and so long as there is no law then there was no harm in doing it. Nothing had changed, all the talk of accepting the risks and working with people was a charade. It could go part of the way to convincing some politicians that they could still trust tobacco, but it could not go too far. It could not be allowed impact on the other precious markets, regardless of the facts. Where there is still money to be made, it would be made regardless of the consequences.

H put down his coffee and looked at me and said ‘What I suppose I am asking is if you understand that you will still have to report and work within the international group, you would still have to carry out the tasks we set?’ I mumbled something about understanding the dynamic but said I would have to argue hard because I did not want to preside over a failing campaign and fail it would. I got my limo back to Heathrow that night and they informed me they were not going to fill the role a few days later. For once, I wasn’t disappointed. I made every effort to understand their arguments but when it came down to it all three were tied together by the same basic problem. They were only talking change because it was forced upon them and behind all the nice handshakes and reasonable arguments, lay a dirty grubby fact. Ireland was just a place they had to fight and keep up appearances. Their real business was elsewhere and it was as callous, uncaring and deadly as it had ever been.

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