A PR campaign against council stop-smoking services, which has led to reports in local papers across England, is funded by British American Tobacco, the Guardian can reveal.
The PR agency Pagefield last week sent news outlets press releases that appeared to attempt to discredit NHS and council stop-smoking services, which are understood to create vast net savings nationally by helping people kick the habit. Pagefield did not initially say it was working on behalf of the manufacturer of cigarette brands including Camel, Pall Mall and Dunhill.
Citing NHS figures, the press release documented the cost per taxpayer for the schemes in their areas without taking into account the money saved by the health service through the reduced burden from smokers requiring treatment. BAT, which owns the e-cigarette brand Vype, suggested the campaign was intended to encourage smokers into vaping.
The press release was used in reports by at least half a dozen local newspapers. The East London and West Essex Guardian wrote that Redbridge council spent almost £5,000 for every smoker it helped quit last year, noting the amount spent on nicotine gum, patches and sprays.
The Northumberland Gazette carried the headline: “The cost of stop smoking services in Northumberland vs how many people actually quit”. The Yellow Advertiser’s was: “Redbridge counts the cost of quitting”. The stories did not mention BAT.
A BAT UK spokesperson claimed it was committed to reducing the health impact of its business by offering consumers a choice of lower-risk alternatives to smoking, including vaping products.
“We believe it is important to raise the debate about new, publicly available data which shows that the cost to the taxpayer of traditional stop-smoking tools has risen significantly compared to the cost of vaping,” they said.
“We understand that when this data was originally shared with journalists it may not have been clear it was on behalf of BAT and as soon as we became aware, we instructed our PR agency to recontact all the journalists the next day to clarify this point.”
Pagefield, which has previously worked for tobacco giant Philip Morris on its IQOS cigarette devices, said it had been working to raise public awareness about alternatives to smoking and that this campaign had sought to encourage smokers into vaping.
It said: “The evidence shows vaping is helping record numbers of smokers to quit, with recent public data now also revealing that vaping is cheaper than traditional cessation aids. This raises an important question for public policy, about which we collated and issued data earlier this week on behalf of BAT and Vype, and this was made clear to the journalists that we spoke to.”
Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of the health charity Ash said it was the first time to her knowledge that a tobacco company in the UK had employed a PR agency that had issued a press release that did not disclose its client.
“This covert ad for e-cigs purports to be public information and has been covered as such by unsuspecting journalists.
“BAT has an appalling and shameful track record going back generations. In just the last year, BAT has been found to have broken advertising rules by promoting its Vype e-cigs to young people on social media.”
In May 2011, BAT was forced to admit funding a high-profile campaign against a government ban on cigarette displays in shops, claiming it would have a “devastating effect on the small business sector”.
Councillor Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board said reducing smoking rates among the 6 million smokers in England was the “single biggest thing” councils could do to improve public health – with smoking-related illnesses costing the NHS approximately £2.5bn a year.
“People’s lives are improved for the better by councils, with every pound invested by government in council-run services such as public health helping to relieve pressure on other services like the NHS, criminal justice and welfare,” he said.
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