Can a tobacco company really want people to stop smoking?

Monday saw Phillip Morris (PM), the tobacco giant behind Marlboro cigarettes, cause a stir amongst health-advocates after launching its ‘Hold My Light’ campaign, which the company has set up to (it’s claimed) help people quit smoking. The ‘going smoke free’ initiative is part of PM’s strategy to create a ‘smoke-free future’ for the firm.

Introduced in a four-page wraparound of the Daily Mirror newspaper, the initiative encourages smokers to give up smoking by signing up to a 30-day ‘smoke-free’ programme. The challenge involves smokers choosing how they want to quit, with the option of going ‘cold turkey’ or swapping cigarettes for alternative products, such as vapes and ‘heat not burn’ tobacco systems. The idea is that a smoker pledges to stop smoking for 30 days and is encouraged to get supportive incentives from their friends and family, such as having dinner cooked for them each week or having their pet looked after whilst they’re on holiday.

Despite the portrayed ‘healthier’ message of the campaign, critics have questioned its integrity. George Butterworth, Cancer Research UK’s tobacco policy manager, has called out PM for its “staggering hypocrisy.” The charity spokesperson argued that the best way to help smokers is to simply stop producing cigarettes. Similarly, Hazel Cheesman, policy director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), coined the new campaign a ‘PR puff’, stating that if PM really wanted a smoke-free future they would cease advertising all over the world.

Phillip Morris Managing Director, Peter Nixon, points out that discontinuing PM’s cigarette production will not stop people from smoking, instead it will just lead them to alternative brands.

The campaign backlash has, however, cast doubt over the firm’s real intentions. Some people are of the opinion that the anti-smoking initiative is being used as a guise to circumnavigate the UK’s strict advertising laws. Arguably, its launch, and the subsequent response it has elicited, has given PM’s products an exposure they may not have had access to otherwise. Concerns have also been raised that the campaign is simply a branding exercise for PM’s alternative tobacco products – currently only representing 13% of their business.

By citing the use of such alternatives as a way to quit cigarettes, PM is positioning them as a less damaging option. The World Health Organisation has denounced these claims, arguing that they are “misleading” the public about how harmful these alternatives can be. To some observers this debate evokes memories of the latter half of the 20th century, when the tobacco industry covered up the health-related risks of smoking for their own personal gain. In actuality, the longer-term risks of cigarette alternative products are not yet known.

It’s true to say that the stigma attached to the tobacco industry, as a result of its historical lobbying, might have clouded some people’s judgement of the campaign. From a business perspective, PM’s decision to gradually move away from the production of cigarettes is a sensible one. They are simply responding to changes in the market. The UK’s smoking population is below 15% for the first time, demonstrating a quarter decrease in five years. On top of this, in 2017 the government published a tobacco control plan in a bid to create a smoke-free generation by the end of 2022.

And why not take PM’s move as an example of corporate social responsibility? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that gestures of goodwill are not always a box-ticking exercise or a master plan to increase business in some way. This year, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that 1.2 million vapers in England have now stopped smoking, with a further 600,000 using alternative tobacco products as a means to quit. Such figures beg the question as to whether PM’s promotion of alternatives is really such a bad thing. If it helps even one person quit, shouldn’t we support it?

PM clearly states that “smoking causes serious disease and is addictive. The best decision for health is not to start or to quit altogether”. Great advice. However, the cynic would say that most smokers would not simply go ‘cold turkey’ and quit. They will seek solace in tobacco alternatives, such as the ones PM manufacture and sell.

Only time will reveal if the stop smoking campaign is truly genuine. Going forward, PM needs to demonstrate they are truly behind people quitting smoking – its four-page spread is just a start. Failure to maintain its ‘smoke-free’ initiative may confirm the consensus amongst critics that the ‘Hold my Light’ campaign is nothing more than another PR stunt staged for capital gain.

Categories: Opinion PR Marketing