• The media continues to be ruthless towards Big Tobacco, as governments present new regulations and NGOs voice even graver concerns about the dangers of smoking.
  • However, the recent media discussion has focused on how several tobacco companies aim to reposition themselves and shift to e-cigarettes and even cannabis to shake off their toxic reputation.
  • The most influential companies in the recent media debate included Philip Morris, which aims to reimagine itself as a broader healthcare and wellness company, and British American Tobacco, which is diversifying its strategy by investing in cannabis.

In the public relations world, the tobacco industry has been synonymous with dodgy comms practices – so much so that some scholars and activists talk of “the tobacco strategy”, the use of PR campaigns to deny the scientific consensus on the dangers of certain products. In fact, the phrase “tobacco strategy” is something often encountered when the mass media criticises the PR efforts of other industries as well.

For example, oil companies have been historically criticised for using “the tobacco strategy” when setting up denial campaigns to promote climate change scepticism. There are even suggestions that Big Oil and Big Tobacco used the same scientists and publicists to downplay the public health dangers of their products and operations.

Since evidence emerged decades ago that it had lied about the safety of smoking, the tobacco industry has been in constant crisis management. Following years of negative press coverage and lawsuits for marketing and selling cigarettes, big tobacco companies are now aggressively pushing to change their image. Many of them hope that a shift to e-cigarettes and even cannabis will help them shake their toxic reputation with the public and investors.

Aiming to expand its shrinking customer base as cigarette smoking declines, Big Tobacco continuously aims to reposition itself as an innovative, tech-savvy champion of quitting and youth tobacco prevention, often appropriating the language of public health. New cigarette alternatives are often promoted with the halo of “safety” to new users, while feigning to be a solution for long-term smokers unable to quit.

Regulation and innovation

To see how Big Tobacco’s recent efforts to reimagine itself have been reflected in the media, we analysed 988 English-language articles published since the beginning of 2021 in top-tier media outlets.

We found that Regulation and policy – something the industry has been struggling with for decades – was the most commonly discussed topic.

The Regulation and policy topic covered mainly new bans on smoking introduced by governments around the world. But the main story which nearly all major news outlets discussed was the proposed ban of menthol cigarettes by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The move was perceived as a major blow to the tobacco industry, as it would affect more than a third of US cigarette purchases.

Journalists reported that public health and civil rights groups have lobbied vigorously for the ban, citing the disproportionate harms of menthol cigarettes on black Americans.

The main accusation was that menthol manufacturers have aggressively targeted low-income urban youth in particular, sparking higher rates of adoption with culturally tailored advertising, local event sponsorships and even free samples at neighbourhood gatherings. Reports showed about 85% of menthol smokes today are purchased by African Americans, compared to fewer than 10% in the 1950s.

As such, proponents of a menthol ban framed it as a social justice issue. However, the story was covered by so many media outlets and became the main topic in the discussion because it sparked a controversy: opponents of the ban, including black leaders like Al Sharpton, have said banning a product that is most popular among African Americans is discriminatory. They warn that criminalising these products may lead to an underground network of buyers and sellers.

The second-largest topic, E-cigarettes and cigarette alternatives, traced Big Tobacco’s campaign to try to transform itself into “New Tobacco”, with offers of non-combustible tobacco product alternatives and claims that the industry can be part of the “public health solution” to end smoking.

Many publications noted that e-cigarette sales took off in 2017, spurred by the popularity of electronic cigarette company Juul. Sales were booming until the fall of 2019 when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, investigating an outbreak of a mysterious lung illness, warned consumers not to use any vaping products. Since then, the prevailing narrative around vaping was that the promise of vapes and e-cigarettes as clean and consequence-free had been severely misrepresented.

The top-trending story in our media sample was the World Health Organization’s statement that e-cigarettes are dangerous to health and must be regulated to curb the tobacco industry’s “criminal” tactics to get young people hooked on nicotine. “Nicotine is highly addictive. Electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are harmful, and must be better regulated,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

But there were also some articles reporting that new research out of the University of Queensland could challenge those assumptions. New evidence suggested that e-cigarettes may be more effective in helping smokers quit than what they call “nicotine replacement therapies”, including products like nicotine patches and gum.

The third most popular topic, Cannabis, followed the interest of tobacco companies in the cannabis industry, which grew up along with the increasing number of US states that legalised cannabis. Commentators remarked that as the cannabis industry is moving further into the mainstream, tobacco companies are trying to diversify their portfolios with products offering less reputational risk.

The cannabis industry has a reputation for innovation and diversification, as cannabis companies are already selling products that divert from the traditional consumption of cannabis, including vape-based cannabis products, edibles, oils, and beverages. According to many business publications, Big Tobacco’s efforts to capture the cannabis industry have taken a form similar to other big-business techniques: acquisition, intellectual property, and lobbying for friendly regulation.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: “Cannabis-Infused Drinks: Exploring the New Beverage Trend”.

The Covid’s impact primarily contained reports about how during lockdowns, people went back to smoking. The decades-long decline in US cigarette sales slowed sharply last year as people in lockdown lit up more frequently and health concerns around e-cigarettes caused some vapers to switch back to cigarettes.

The Financial performance and ESG investing topic followed companies’ financial results releases: for example, Lucky Strike maker British American Tobacco reported a stronger-than-expected annual profit, as it sold more higher-priced cigarettes and saw more customers use its e-cigarette and tobacco heating during the pandemic.

On the other hand, the growing influence of ESG investments meant that tobacco stocks face pressure. According to some analysts, the surge in ESG money explains why cigarette stocks performed poorly last year despite resilient sales and profits. For instance, BAT has shed more than a third of its market value over the past five years, while Imperial Brands has slumped by almost two-thirds. Commentators remarked that giants like Philip Morris and Altria are the second-and third-most underweighted stocks in ESG portfolios relative to their weighting in the S&P 500 index.

Philip Morris and BAT lead the way

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around tobacco.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Philip Morris had the highest impact on the media discussion, mainly because journalists focused on its hope that a shift to e-cigarettes will help them shake their toxic reputation. In what some reporters deemed one of the most ambitious pitches in the cigarette industry’s history, the company set a new target to make more than 50% of group revenues from smokeless products like its IQOS heated-tobacco sticks by 2025, up from 24% today.

Furthermore, Philip Morris bought the drugmaker Vectura for $1.44 billion, which gave it access to the British firm’s respiratory ailment treatments and inhaling device technology. Vectura makes inhaled medicines to treat respiratory illnesses, and counts Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline among its customers. Philip Morris aims to use its expertise to produce a range of over-the-counter and prescription-based respiratory therapies as part of its “evolution into a broader healthcare and wellness company”.

The tobacco giant also hit many headlines as it said it wants to stop selling cigarettes in the UK within the next 10 years, including its Marlboro brand. Many journalists asserted that while this might seem like a self-sabotaging business move, it’s actually the company responding to a consumer shift away from smoking tobacco products.

In contrast, the second most influential company in the conversation, British American Tobacco, conveyed another message: don’t ban cigarettes. The maker of Dunhill and Rothmans brands claimed that outlawing smoking would only drive the industry underground.

BAT‘s repositioning strategy included promoting vaping and other “non-combustible” products to encourage smokers to quit. The firm also said it was looking at expanding into cannabis as it diversifies its business away from traditional tobacco products – it made first investment in cannabis, taking a 20% stake in Canadian weed producer Organigram.

David O’Reilly, head of scientific research at BAT, said the tie-up would bolster efforts to move “beyond tobacco and nicotine into new and exciting areas of product innovation”, as the company adapted to “meet the evolving needs of adult consumers”. Some analysts said that cannabis made “strategic sense for big tobacco” and there was “arguably less reputational risk” in cannabis.

A similar move was made by Altria, which was presented as being on its way to becoming one of the world’s biggest and most influential cannabis companies. As industry outlets reported, Altria lobbied on cannabis sales in Virginia – the first time that a tobacco company has lobbied on cannabis in the US. And as Forbes first reported, Altria has added cannabis technology to its portfolio, acquiring patented marijuana vaporizers and filing new patent applications for proprietary devices.

Japan Tobacco International, which makes Old Holborn tobacco and Camel cigarettes, was also mentioned as a company on its way to reimagine itself – it said that “we see [cigarettes], heated tobacco products and other reduced-risk products coexisting for the foreseeable future”. Imperial Brands will also target tobacco-heating products and e-cigarettes, reducing losses from its previous one-size-fits-all approach.

In the meantime, Juul was covered in a pretty negative light as North Carolina sued the company over its role in popularising e-cigarettes among young people. Juul will pay $40m and make “drastic changes to the way it conducts business” as part of the consent order. “For years, Juul targeted young people, including teens, with its highly addictive e-cigarette. It lit the spark and fanned the flames of a vaping epidemic among our children — one that you can see in any high school in North Carolina,” Josh Stein, North Carolina’s attorney-general said.

Non-profits shape the narrative around dangers

The media’s attitude towards tobacco companies was fuelled by a large number of non-profit organisations fighting against smoking. The most influential of them was the World Health Organization:

The World Health Organization‘s influence on the discussion was mainly due to its widely reported claim that electronic cigarettes and similar devices are dangerous to health and must be regulated to curb the tobacco industry’s “criminal” tactics to get young people hooked on nicotine. It said that the tobacco industry’s sleek marketing is attracting youngsters to e-cigarettes which can lead to tobacco addiction, despite claims by some executives that they aim to solve the smoking epidemic.

Asked about Philip Morris CEO Jacek Olczak‘s claim that the tobacco group is able “to leave smoking behind”, Ruediger Krech, director of the WHO’s department of health promotion, told a briefing: “I don’t believe … that all of a sudden you turn from being the real problem to being part of the solution.”

The US Food and Drug Administration earned its influence because of its proposed controversial ban on menthol cigarettes in the United States. In the meantime, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a number of other justice groups said that such actions could have “serious racial justice implications” that “trigger criminal penalties,” and “lead to unconstitutional policing” against Black Americans.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who smoke currently or smoked previously are more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19. Other organisations that voiced similar concerns included the National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, Action on Smoking and Health and the American and British Lung Associations.

The least influential organisation in the conversation was Forest, a group that campaigns to protect the interests of adults who choose to smoke or consume tobacco. Its director Simon Clark was quoted in a few reports as saying that stress has always been a major reason why some people smoke: “At difficult times smoking and vaping can be a comfort so it would be no surprise if nicotine use has increased as a result of Covid.”

Tobacco execs try to tell a new story

Alongside officials and experts, tobacco execs were given a fair share of exposure in the media debate:

The most influential spokesperson in the whole discussion was Philip Morris Chief Executive Officer Jacek Olczak, who was quoted in many reports on his company’s decision to stop selling cigarettes in the UK: “I think in the UK, ten years from now maximum, you can completely solve the problem of smoking”.

Olczak also said the Marlboro brand “will disappear” from British store shelves along with its other brands. Olczak, who has embarked on a more aggressive strategy to diversify the world’s largest tobacco company away from cigarettes, has previously called on Britain to treat cigarettes like petrol cars.

Following Olczak‘s remarks, Dr Moira Gilchrist, the firm’s vice-president of strategic and scientific communications, told the BBC that Philip Morris can see a world without cigarettes – the sooner it happens, the better it is for everyone: “Quitting is the best option, but for those who don’t, science and technology has allowed companies like ours to create better alternatives to continued smoking.”

FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock was the second most influential spokesperson thanks to her participation in the debate around menthol cigarettes. Citing several studies on menthol’s adverse effects, she said outlawing the flavour could “help save lives” and “address health disparities experienced by communities of colour, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products”.

Similarly, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said that for far too long, certain populations, including African Americans, have been targeted, and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use: “Despite the tremendous progress we’ve made in getting people to stop smoking over the past 55 years, that progress hasn’t been experienced by everyone equally.”

Meanwhile, Kingsley Wheaton, BAT’s chief marketing officer, told CNBC that CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the consumer spaces that BAT has its eye on. She also told the FT that hopefully there is a day when companies like hers are no longer regarded as the tobacco industry and a tobacco business.

Her colleague Jack Bowles, BAT’s chief executive, was quoted for his claim that an outright ban on cigarettes would not work, citing the example of South Africa, which banned smoking last year during the pandemic. “Consumption did not reduce one bit – and everything becomes illicit,” he said.

Bowles also ruled out following the lead of Philip Morris, which is diversifying into pharmaceutical companies, saying that every company is different and BAT is a marketing consumer brand-led company. “So our role is to take the consumers that we have in combustibles and … transfer them to new categories.” One such new category is cannabis, the BAT boss added. “Cannabis is one out of many different products that we are looking at.”

Altria Chief Executive Officer Billy Gifford said the impact of the menthol ban on the industry is unclear at this stage, but was sceptical about whether a ban would have the desired effect on public health. In a similar manner, Reynolds spokeswoman Kaelan Hollon said that although her company is “committed to keeping tobacco products out of the hands of youth,” flavour bans have “demonstrated unintended consequences.”

Stefan Bomhard, who joined Imperial Brands as CEO in July, said his emphasis would be on heated tobacco products, such as its Pulze device, as those were gaining traction in Europe, had higher customer retention rates and generated higher margins than e-cigarettes.

Check out our CEO Media Visibility Tracker for more insights.

How tobacco companies can turn the narrative around

Based on our analysis, here are some ways in which comms can help tobacco firms fix their reputation:

  • Position yourself as part of the solution. As we saw, Big Tobacco continuously aims to reposition itself as an innovative, tech-savvy champion of quitting and youth tobacco prevention. The most successful example in our sample was Philip Morris, which was covered in a positive light for its efforts to reimagine itself as a broader healthcare and wellness company. Working alongside public health and adopting the rhetoric of harm reduction could present companies as problem-solvers for long-term smokers unable to quit.
  • Look at how pharma companies did it. The fight against coronavirus, alongside the vaccine development process, has put science in a more prominent position in public perceptions. The critical role science plays in responding to a crisis is being elevated to such an extent that even the notoriously “bad” pharma companies experience reputational boosts as the coronavirus pandemic highlights their scientific expertise in developing medications and vaccines. Tobacco companies could utilise the greater public interest in science to promote their innovations when it comes to the fight against smoking. For example, take a look at how Pfizer rebranded itself into a “smaller, science-based company.” 
  • Focus on communicating partnerships and alliances. Tobacco companies increasingly partner with organisations and public leaders, and these contributions can also be a PR strategy to improve their reputation. A good example is Philip Morris‘ use of Vectura’s technology as a way to transform itself into a healthcare company, and BAT‘s investment in Organigram. However, be careful: some NGOs are calling on organisations to reject funding and partnership from tobacco and vaping companies by signing the pledge and continuing the conversation.
  • Reach new audiences with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) messaging. Our recent research shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics are very popular among millennials.

Learn more about how Commetric’s Media Analytics can supercharge your communications strategy with the essential insights necessary to boost your reputation.